I recently traveled to Georgia to participate in the annual Open Government Partnership Summit. Georgia itself is a gorgeous country and I had a great time, however, I think I might have discovered that I’m a cold weather person.
Attending conferences can be an amazing experience and the Open Government Partnership was no exception. Over 2000 participants from 130 countries sharing ideas and experiences with regards to transparency, participation and collaboration between citizens and government. The ultimate aim is to have a fair society worldwide for every citizen. During the event, I picked up several pros and a couple cons that I’d like to share.
There were several elements to this event, but I stayed close to the issues surrounding open data and citizen engagement. You’d think in this area there would be a wide range of issues to discuss, but a lot of, but it really comes down to a few key ideas.
We need to understand what data is wanted by citizens. That’s not to say we should be asking people on the street if air quality measurements made over the last six years are pertinent to them. It is instead more of a question about what types of problems are citizens facing. Starting with understanding the exact problems allows us to understand and seek out the data required to support citizens in understanding, monitoring and perhaps solving their problems. This is the key to open data, not just publishing data for data’s sake, but supplementing volume with depth on key issues.
We need to engage citizens to participate. This involves not only asking what data they want to see, a.k.a. what problems they want to solve. But asking how they want to see it. It’s a very interesting conversation to have that helps you recognize your own advantages and disadvantages as measured against a world of solutions. Like Scotland, Kenya has a significant amount of its citizens located in rural areas. The difference being broadband coverage, so while internet solutions might work in Scotland they are less likely to be useful in Kenya. But perhaps mobile or radio solutions could be useful. Sometimes just printing up some big old banners and posting them up in places with heavier traffic in rural areas works. It’s about asking for the best way to deliver information to those that need and/or want it.
In hindsight, this goes the other way just as well. We have significant broadband coverage in Scotland but rarely have I heard anyone ask a population if that is how they would like to access information. Would citizens instead prefer podcasts or YouTube videos to data portals? Perhaps they’d like information read out on the radio like the shipping forecast? We don’t know until we ask.
This is a pro, but it defines something that needs to be worked on. Public engagement with open data in the round, across the spectrum in the world, from the third world to the first has been spectacularly difficult to gain traction. We have brilliant examples of projects, that have demonstrated engagement and given hope, but in the main, we are building the ability to be transparent and find that few people tend to look in.
Some of the best examples of real public engagement come from a process known as deliberation which is a different process than consultation. Estonia, Tanzania, Canada and the UK all have had success using these methods to different degrees. However, this is an approach that is not always suitable, it is difficult to carry out, it doesn’t always receive political backing and ultimately it is extremely expensive.
We need to start exploring more ways to engage the public and see if we can start a revolution with a small ‘r.’
Ok people, this was a large conference and there were people from around the world attending. As for advice to people who might attend conferences in the future, I’d like to say: do not grandstand. You’ve been given thirty seconds maybe a minute to ask a question. If the question you have in mind is so nuanced that you need a fifteen-minute preamble, laughing at your own cleverness along the way they do not ask that in the room. Perhaps get a side meeting with the presenters or panel? There must be some element of cultural etiquette here as I saw ministers do the same as that guy who doesn’t get enough attention at work.
Everyone understands the desire to be a part of a conversation, but taking it over to tell about your own experience is selfish and usually counterproductive. I have yet to see one of these conversations actually move the debate forward.
As for advice to moderators going forward, even heads of state need their mic turned off every once in a while.
I’m wondering if there is a law that states the correlation between the narrowness of the bottleneck and the need for people to stand and have a conversation. Two long lost friends who haven’t seen each other in a year need to stand at the entrance or exit and introduce all fifteen of their colleagues to one another. Completely oblivious to the (quite literally) 100s of people needing to get through.
I was a guest of this country and attempting to be sympathetic to different cultures. Saying that I could feel the British tutting rising up in the back of my throat. I should probably get that checked.
Besides my gripes the conversation was rousing, the people were inspiring, and the political will was bending our way. We are slowly turning a wheel towards an improved collaboration between citizens and governments. Perhaps next year Wittin will have more inspiring things to share, in Ottawa, let’s hope it’s cold!