ABRELATAM: the Latin American open data Unconference

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.