As I mentioned on my last blog Dave and I spent this week in Geneva at OKCon.
This was my first time at OKCon and it was great to see a number of familiar faces from both OGP events and AbreLatAm. Though this was definitely a conference, unlike the Latin American unconference, there was still that feeling of being able to walk up to people and easily start chatting about the projects you’re working on. I’ve been inspired by New Zealand (and their idea of open government data as the new “business as usual”), awed by UNHCR (with their open data for humanitarian crises) and discussed the risks of people getting involved in tech for transparency movements in closed countries.
One session we attended was hosted by Code For Europe. It’s an organisation based on the Code for America example and we listened with interest to their approach, and defense when asked questions by skeptics. Their main challenge to the workshop attendees? Instead of trying to solve a huge national level problem and failing thanks to government bureaucracy, find one Civil Servant or MP that has a great idea and work with them. And in fact, some of mySociety’s best known platforms were started before we had any buy-in from the government, but knowing we had support from a few key people.
We made some great new friends, and caught up with DATAuy. Dave helped them set up FixMyStreet for Montevideo right there at the conference. This was a pretty amazing moment for us because it proved that the platforms, especially the Amazon EC2 hosted ones, really can be set up in less than a day! Don’t forget Dave is working on improving the documentation for this so if you are setting it up, please do fill in our survey.
For me, the most inspiring talk came from Jay Naidoo. He spoke about young people using technology and the internet to fight corruption as digital warriors bringing a “tsunami of hope”. The dream is that these young people can get information into the hands of the communities that can use it to hold their leaders to account. The ideal would be that we create a world free of corruption, where aid money and NGO initiatives get to those that need it most, and moreover that once it arrives, people understand how and why to use it – all because they have access to that information. You can read his blog about the talk here.
Thanks to OKFN for organising such a great event with such inspiring speakers. I’m looking forward to the festival in Berlin next year!
The next big event we’ll be at is OGP in London at the end of October, though we’re hoping to speak at some of the surrounding events as part of Transparency Week. Please do get in touch with us if you’re coming to OGP and want to meet up! We’d love to see you! Plus, you could join our Meet up on the 30th October and meet some mySociety staff!
OKCon main room photo by Arnaud Velten | Other photos by Jen
The open data movement has been gathering momentum over the past few years, as citizens demand more accountability from the businesses, institutions and governments that form a part of their lives.
Last week, our international team was invited to take part in the first ever AbreLatAm (by the way: a clever word play on the Spanish word “abrelatas” which means can opener!). AbreLatAm is an unconference organised by our friends at DATA (Uruguay) and Ciudadano Inteligente (Chile).
The idea was to bring representatives from different sectors of Latin American civil society together to share experiences, strategies, challenges and hopes for Open Data. People came from all over, including Europe and the USA, to participate, creating an amazingly inclusive atmosphere.
Being an unconference, there was no set agenda. Instead, we started our time by writing provocative statements around open data, which people then had to defend or deny. Once the ice had been broken by passionate discussions about the merits of various ideas, we worked together to decide what we most wanted to learn from each other.
For me, the most important part was seeing the projects other people work on to strengthen transparency, citizen participation, and civil liberties in their own countries. It’s a humbling experience to realise that some things we take for granted are the subject of intense campaigning in other countries.
Each day we had a series of workshops around different topics. I facilitated one, trying to learn what people want from open source technology to make it more globally usable.
It’s funny, open source has such great aspirations, then you speak to people and realise that your creation has been tweaked so much for the local context that it’s almost easier for someone to write their own version. This is something we’ve really taken on board, and we’re working really hard to avoid this with all of our software.
I attended other workshops, learning about the challenges of building relationships with non-technical organisations – a key problem for most non-technical NGOs it seems. Most don’t have the money to pay for commercial web development.
Hopefully, AbreLatAm will have allowed some of these people to forge useful tech partnerships so they can develop their ideas together.
It was also extremely interesting to hear other people’s social, cultural and political experiences in relation to technology. One of the presentations that sticks most in my mind came from Laura Zommer of Chequeado.com. Her site verifies whether a politician’s statements are true, false, exaggerated or deceptive.
Her presentation was a very funny video using those statements as a song sung around Buenos Aires. I particularly liked the fact that the public stopped to listen, and sometimes gave money to the artist. I would like to think that this kind of satirical response to politicians will help people analyse and question what their elected leaders tell them.
Most of all though, the enthusiasm, energy and hope of all the participants left me with a feeling that we are slowly effecting change, in all of our countries, and if we work together we could do this throughout the whole world.
From one extreme to another – the diversity among mySociety’s volunteers is most fascinating. You may, or may not, have read one of my previous blog posts on Tim Morley, a volunteer responsible for the day to day running of pledgebank.com. If you have, you will know that he is a primary school language teacher who is making a massive contribution towards keeping that site going.
It may be difficult to believe, and mySociety is ever so grateful for it, but there are actually other volunteers out there who are just as dedicated. One of them are Amandeep Rehlon – Treasurer as well as Trustee of UKCOD and Director of mySociety.
Having a background in accounting and finance Amandeep is responsible for, among other things, VAT returns, annual accounts and paying staff. We all know that money makes the world go around, so quite a lot of responsibility there.
As dealing with finances at mySociety is not enough, he also does it in his “real” job working for the Bank of England. As he puts it himself, being based in the Financial Stability area he has been ‘ahem, rather busy in the last year or so’. Yeah, I can imagine!
Amandeep originally got involved with mySociety in late 2005 as he was seen as a suitable replacement for Tom Loosemore, the previous Treasurer who left to due to family commitments. Three years or so later, he’s still around because he thinks ‘mySociety’s sites make the world a better place’ and (as with Tim Morley) he likes the people that he works with. Very encouraging to read that he also knows a lot of people who are using mySociety’s services in their day jobs – we would like to hear more of that!
When he has some spare time (not sure when that would be but there you go) he plays hockey, read, listen to music (including lots of gigs) and eat too much chocolate – ‘especially from James’s chocolate shop’. Sounds like a full on life, but fortunately with a bit of fun in between.
Super WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer John Cross has made an interesting petition about Freedom of Information and publicly owned companies
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to support a change to the law to make companies owned two thirds or more by public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”
The petition goes on to explain (in more details at the bottom right of the petition page) that the situation is quite comical at the moment. If a company is owned by one local authority, then it is subject to FOI, but if it is jointly owned by two then it isn’t. This makes little sense, and it is also very important, as private companies owned by authorities often do important work.