Carla Bonina reports from an intense week end of August 2017 discussing the past, present and future of open data in Latin America
The last week of August I took part in a busy agenda for an engaged community that meets regularly in Latin America to mobilise the open data agenda and its initiatives. This year marked the fifth anniversary of Abrelatam and Condatos and it was a celebration of a community that started small and is now consolidated in a stable network of actors that include the civil society, governments, academics, companies and activists.
Abrelatam is the regional open data unconference that took place on August 23, and the event is all about inclusion, participation and dialogue. In Abrelatam, there are no keynotes nor expert speakers lecturing an audience but rather a group of individuals that take the role of speakers and listeners at the same time. This year, 250 participants from 29 countries gathered together at 8.30 am to craft the agenda for the day to debate key issues related to open data such as open government, public services, privacy, human rights, citizen participation, data journalism, impact and technical aspects among others. During the day, we ran three parallel sessions of ten groups that discussed the topics included in the common agenda, guided by a facilitator who ensured equal opportunities to listen and be heard. Each group takes notes that are later shared with the whole community at the end of the sessions. To understand how committed the community is you simply needed to take a look around at the final session of the day: it was 6.30 pm and the auditorium was full.
During Thursday 24 and Friday 25 August it was time for Condatos, the actual conference. While the programme included more traditional round tables and symposia, most sessions were co-created by the speakers and their moderators. On Thursday, I took part as speaker during a session that covered the voice of the citizenry and the demand side of open data. I later moderated a session with very insightful speakers and an engaged audience on the scalability and sustainability of open data and civic tech initiatives. The afternoon hosted a keynote with Beth Noveck, the Director of NYU based GovLab. Another highlight of the afternoon was a panel about the dark side of open data and surveillance, which discussed the illegal tools that governments are using to spy on, to surveil and even harass NGOs, journalists and activists for transparency and open data in the region. Friday sessions included four hands-on labs that used design thinking to help current initiatives to move forward, and a three-hour session to build the region’s “collaborative agenda”—an impressive effort that sets priorities for the future of open data in Latin America. The closing ceremony on Friday featured a keynote from the President of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis, which signalled the relevance and importance that the community has built over these five years.
Three themes for the future
No doubt the region has made very good progress on mobilising the open data agenda is here to stay. And among the diverse and rich topics discussed during the week, I want to highlight three key aspects that may improve the future of open data in the region:
- To be more systematic to understand what works—and learn from what it doesn’t. The region has advanced with many initiatives, and while some research projects have been conducted, there are still limited knowledge resources that could be shared among key innovators, policy makers and implementers. A good direction is this way has been the launch of a new repository of research conducted in the region and published in Spanish—RIGA—led by the Latin American Initiative for Open Data in collaboration with the GovLab.
- To address financial sustainability and the inclusion of the private sector. While progress has been made, the community still reacts to business models and the economics of open data with suspicion. Certainly, large (data) corporations are absent from the community and that should change. What has changed, though, is that this year I met with a growing number of entrepreneurs doing good work with open data and thinking in sustainable ways. We shall see more inclusion of the private sector in the future, and to develop better tools to understand a broader range of sustainable business models.
- The tensions between open data and surveillance are growing. This year, we herd from cases were activists are being tracked and surveilled illegally by governments in the region. It was also revealed that many of these civic tech organisations are not yet aware on how to protect themselves. This was, perhaps, a new topic in the agenda of the movement that will see more developments in the near future.
My week was packed with amazing conversations and discussion, most feeding into my ongoing research projects on open data. I also had the chance to reconnect with friends, meet new people, get to know novel initiatives, and be nurtured by the generosity and hospitality of the local organising team. Next Abrelatam/Condatos will be hosted in Buenos Aires in November 2018. Hasta la próxima!
photo credit: Abrelatam 2017