Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #3: Accessing quality information for civic tech success

How can we overcome barriers to accessing good data and documentation?

Last week, a global audience came together online for the third TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.

Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion of one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.

In our third Surgery, the discussants explained the barriers they’ve experienced in accessing good-quality data and information, and then some of the ways they’ve found to meet these challenges, and ideas for what might be missing.

It was fascinating to learn how similar the issues are, as well as where they diverge, in the several countries represented by our speakers and by the audience.

This time around, our expert panel comprised Nehemiah Attigah of Odekro in Ghana; Laura Zommer from Chequeado in Argentina; Khairil Yusof representing the Sinar project in Malaysia; Sym Roe of Democracy Club, in the UK; and Nati Carfi of Open Data Charter, in Argentina.

Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but we’ll summarise the main points in this blog post.


Data is often not in the right format to use digitally or is not machine-readable – documents have to be scanned and then digitised through OCR.

Officialdom/authorities can be problematic in a number of ways:

  • They might demand unwarranted fees for information;
  • They might be ignorant of legislation such as FOI that requires them to provide information on demand;
  • Laws might be contradictory, for example one law might penalise officials who give out information, while another gives citizens the right to request it;
  • There might a low level of understanding as to how the data could be used;
  • There can be concerns that the data would uncover the authorities’ own corruption;
  • They might stop publishing data or change the format it is in, due to political circumstances;
  • They might work to different deadlines or timescales than is useful for organisations’ needs.

Even if the data is available, it can be too complex for a non-expert to understand.

Good open source code that exists might not be suitable for every country’s circumstances.

Possible solutions

  • When authorities can see the data in use, it’s much easier for them to understand why it’s needed – so resources showing examples of where civic tech is working elsewhere (for example in other countries) or making prototype tools that show what could be done might be a solution.
  • Groups could publish stories in the media about what happens when data stops being published or changes in a way that damages the tools people rely on.
  • Could data sources be archived to provide a permanent home in case the official sources stop publishing them?
  • Educating the public to make them understand data better – through blog posts, podcasts, ‘data translators’ or whatever means.
  • Publishing case studies that explain solutions that haven’t worked, as well as those that have.
  • Training for NGOs and organisations on how to engage with authorities.
  • Training for the public on how to use data.
  • Translating existing guidance on open data standards into languages other than English.
  • Producing resources that explain the value of open data standards rather than just advocating for open data standards in of themselves.
  • Research how access to information laws apply to datasets and how those laws work in practice.

Action lab

Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.