As I mentioned at the beginning of my presence here, this blog is designed to serve its readers with updates on the projects MySociety is currently working with. You need to understand that by doing so I am establishing organic conversations with many advocates of transparency in the region, so I think it would be really good to share those with you. I hope to open this space up for more discussion leading to knowledge share and inspiration. Yesterday I talk to Štefan Urbánek from Slovakia, who is deeply involved in transparency issues in his country. First, he used his data management experience for work with Fair Play Alliance (documented for Technology for Transparency here, in English). According to Štefan Fair Flay Alliance is pretty good NGO and has gathered quite a lot of valuable data. They have great knowledge and understanding of free information act in Slovakia. Štefan was working with their team on an application aimed to publish and present the data in easily accessible and readable form. (You can learn about it more from this presentation). It seems however that the great amount of data was undervalued and the process of publishing it became difficult due to the lack of marketing, promotion but also worries about potential consequences of that step (more on it below).
Now Štefan is working on a new project, Public Procurement by Transparency International, Slovakia. Transparency International in Slovakia is the most technologically advanced NGO in the country. It has access to great deal of data but also invests time in creating buzz around it – from blog posts to off-line talks with representatives about the findings resulting from the data. You can find about the project here or in this document. The final results of this project are published in reports.
While talking to Štefan I grew increasingly interested in his personal involvement in those projects. He said, he is:
“Trying to use methods, tools or way of doing things from corporate environment to implement in this open society, open data form as those are already invented but do not being used in a public environment.
Corporate environment is driven mostly by profit, growth, competition or good name. To know their standing they have to know exactly what is going on: how much they have, how much is going in and out. Therefore there is big pressure to have good measurement, analysis and reporting tools. Without those tools it would be only intuition or good guess.”
Throughout our conversation we have managed to identify the challenges for governments (and other NGO’s) in applying the same rules to their environment:
1. Lack of pressure: government does not have to compete with other governments, government has stable “paying customer base” – there is no competition for “customers” to leave to. Government representatives do not see benefit of attracting new customers, increasing (voluntarily from “customer’s” side) revenues, nor they see no benefit of using the analytics to optimize their processes.
2. The data and analytics are expensive: ordinary people but even government cannot afford consultants, tools and storage of the data.
3. Missing data literacy – even if they had data, they would not know what to do with it. NGO’s should step in and teach people to use and to look for it. But first they need to know how to do it, how to look at the data. They are not doing it because they do not have enough of competence in this area. The people educated in IT or data management start working for corporations, not NGO’s. But we are at the stage we do not need a lot of advanced knowledge or complicated algorithms for now, so we can still change this situation. NGO’s need to start to connect and learn from “domain experts” first, and then they should use the learned knowledge to be not only experts in their area, but also evangelists.
There is also the issue of releasing the data. Sometimes we are scared of the data! NGOs are sometimes hesitating with data publishing for various reasons. May be they are afraid of legal issues (inaccurate data etc), data completeness (they want to be very up-to-date), application quality (under development, permanent beta). Approach of being a perfectionist is not appropriate here, as there will always be “something to be improved”. We need to get feedback as soon as possible; we need to make use of data despite their quality. Proper legal statements and data description can prevent possible legal conflicts. So it’s important to open the data asap and let people to browse it, send feedback and corrections, to check the data quality with appropriate disclaimers. As Štefan well put it:
“Release early – release often. “
So at the moment Štefan is trying to evangelize data knowledge and create really simplified and easy used solutions. He is trying to port knowledge from corporate environment to government, showing how we can benefit from data, what we can learn from them, how to transform them into information and information to knowledge.
We will hear more from him, as the entire conversation has raised more questions, but I would not like to keep you too long. For now let me leave you with one idea: it would be great if someone could talk to NGO’s to find out why they do not want to/are worried about releasing the data. That seems to be the case in Slovakia but can be in other countries and regions of the world as well. What do you think?