How To Make Open Data Useful

I think there's a problem with Open Data.

First there is the perceived barrier to access and to participate, to using data. The word data (for the non-techie) is scary, spreadsheets and databases are scary, open is scary.

There are lots of challenges, but the one I’m going to outline I’m going to call a Programmers are gods problem.

The thing is they are Gods. Programmers are the Gods of their tiny worlds. They can make anything happen, just one change in the command line and boom it’s raining on your parade.

In order for Open Data to become useful we need to make it mainstream.

We need to overcome this barrier. We need consumers, journalists, scientists, government employees, policy makers to embrace it, or at least not be terrified of it.

There is a perception that you can only participate in Open Data initiatives if you know how to code. I admit, coding is essential. This is a problem though, because as a movement, we need Open Data accepted, but also to be widely understood.

So while I lay down my gifts to the Omnipotent gods of Programming I ask humbly:

"Why don’t we work together?"

Recently, I attended BookDash, an event put on by Paperight that’s fighting back shockingly low literacy rates with a flood of Creative Commons Licensed childrens books to be freely distributed.

Book Dash

The mindmelting issue with literacy in South Africa can’t be solved by one person or one thing. On this specific day, it took 30 people to address the problem.

One day and 10 teams of 3 people, each with

  • a Writer (responsible for story and words)

  • an Illustrator (responsible for pictures, they bring their own illustrating equipment)

  • a Designer (responsible for layout and typography, they bring a laptop with Adobe CS5 or later)

Added to this, there are expert volunteers on the day who are there to assist the teams. They don't belong to any specific team. These include

  • a Facilitator (briefs the participants and keeps time)

  • a Host (makes sure everyone has a place to sit, food to eat and fuel to drink)

  • an Editor (responsible for helping writers refine text, answering editorial questions and proofreading)

  • an Archivist–storyteller (takes photos and tweets, and collects, catalogues and stores everyone’s contributions - including contributor agreements)

  • Roving Specialists (for bouncing ideas off. Specialists may include children)

Each of the teams together, created a book in a day. 30 books, all headed to children's jammy hands on Mandela Day.

Based on Book Dash I think you could do the same thing with Open Data.

Put together similar teams each with

  • a Developer (responsible for writing the code)

  • a Designer (responsible for graphics, User Interface and User Experience design)

  • a Journalist (ressponsible for storytelling)

Then you give each team some reasonably clean data sets, give them a lot of caffeine (and some whisky obviously) and a ticking clock.

With this you could then take a piece of data and turn it into something magic. Something that people want to consume and use (even government employees).

Tell me where the error is, after all I don’t write code.

Cover Image Credit: Kasra Kyanzadeh

Kelsey Wiens is an Open Access Advocate, currently working as the Creative Commons South Africa Public Lead. Busy trying to make Access to Knowledge in Africa and out of Africa easy. She wass once described as whisky in a teacup; she says that's accurate. Follow her on Twitter.