Themes from Datensummit 17: culture, responsibility, credibility, literacy, engagement

Time for a reflective wrap-up of last week’s “Datensummit”, the first national-level meetup on Open Data in Germany, co-hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany and the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. I was only able to attend the conference part on day one – the next day barcamp further deepened the debate and provided opportunities for hands-on experimentation and collaboration.

Image caption: The Datensummit 17 took place in the historical building of the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.

What I took home from a long day of presentations, conversations and personal interactions are three main themes that I sensed throughout the event. Needless to say, this is obviously a subjective summary, omitting some of the aspects and even entire talks – fuelled purely by my personal interests and focus areas:

1. Open data as culture

While the term “open data movement” may easily trigger associations of tech-savvy people obsessed with processing data to publish previously hidden information (and no doubt, this is one strong aspect of it), a range of speakers highlighted that the core of the movement is not solely about giving access to such data but above all about creating and promoting a culture of openness and democratic participation.

As Fiona Krakenbürger, one of the presenters on the “State of the Open” keynote, stressed: the movement’s goal is to establish “openness as a cultural DNA”. Data has to be seen as a concept that is far more than just technical; the goal is only reached once the civil society gains factual value from this openness.

Using (open) data for political purposes is fuelling a large share of the work in this field. Not only Franz-Reinhard Habbel encouraged the use of data for political purposes on a municipal level (and, with the sluggishness of public administration, the more agile civil society will always play an important role in that), also a lot of the projects presented had a very strong political agenda; maybe most prominently the luftdaten.info initiative by a group of Stuttgart-based activists (presented by Jan Lutz) who built a distributed open source measuring network for airborne particulate matter to collect evidence that the air quality issues in their city is much larger than the public administration admits.

“What we do is political”, also Zara Rahman highlighted in her talk “Of people, data, and good intentions”, stressing that the civic technology movement is always political.

Image caption: Zara Rahman delivering her talk “Of people, data and good intentions”.

To illustrate this point, one has to look no farther than to two of the projects presented at the conference: München Transparent or OParl; initiatives to make municipal administration documents more accessible. What may look like a technology project at first, is ultimately an empowering process to provide citizens with better means to follow their local affairs.

The powerful talk by data journalist Vanessa Wormer showcased how also political engagement by journalistic means can build on access to data where it exists – at the same time criticising how in Germany a lot of data that should be open for public benefit (such as real estate ownership) is kept closed to protect questionable interests of privileged minorities.

Image caption: Vanessa Wormer telling the story of her involvement in the Panama Papers coverage and how UK journalists could work with better data than their German colleagues.

Despite an obviously open-minded and cooperative spirit between civil society and government at this summit, similar critique was presented repeatedly, with speakers demonstrating how difficult it can be to access certain data that should be public; this kind of advocacy too is part of the agenda in open data.

2. Responsibility and credibility

The ability to access, process and publish data is nonetheless a privilege in itself, the implications of which have to be acknowledged and understood. As Zara Rahman highlighted, four aspects of engagement with data have to be considered in particular: potential risks connected with it, the power it gives to oneself and others (including opponents), the intent motivating the engagement, and ultimately its usefulness.

This aspect was vividly reflected in one of the audience questions when Melanie Thewlis presented her GentriMap map of gentrification in Berlin: while the data has been assembled to highlight social issues due to the trends in the housing market, the same data could of course be of great value for real estate agents, as to highlight just how trendy some neighbourhood may be.

Image caption: Melanie Thewlis discussing her gentrification mapping project.

At the same time – and I return once more to Zara Rahman’s talk – just having access to and processing open data is not enough. Ultimately, activists in the field are facing a credibility challenge. Zara told the story of how she went to campaign against Brexit in the UK before the referendum, yet no matter how obvious data she could present, people on the street may rather believe the media or some party campaigns than the sole civil activist they don’t know anything about. “Opening data without credibility and trust does not make a difference”, she closed.

3. Literacy and engagement

This leads directly to my third “theme of the day”: data literacy and how to get people engaged with data – their data, or data on issues affecting them.

As state secretary Dorothea Bär already expressed in her opening words, open data has no sooner reached its purpose as before the citizens have understood it.

Sylvia Fredriksson presented a range of strategies applied by the “School of Data” project (Datenschule in Germany) to teach data literacy to NGOs and citizens; making data tangible and learning about its power when presented effectively. Bardhyl Jashari further elaborated on Macedonia as an exemplary case how civil society organisations and their use of open data work as a catalyst to change the political culture in a country historically shaped by a culture of secrecy and authoritative governance; this is an easily forgotten aspect of data literacy – being able to understand data or representations thereof is one thing, but understanding its worth for cultural transformation and “making an impact” another.

Also projects like Decoding Darfur, presented by Milena Marin from Amnesty International, show how open data done right has the potential to engage thousands of people to contribute to a cause while at the same time learning about the value of data (microtasking the job of analysing satellite imagery, mechanical turk -style).

Image caption: Milena Marin presenting the results of Amnesty’s “microtasking campaign”.

I believe that, ultimately, the best way to engage people with data is to teach them how it matters. As Stefanie Posavec put it: “data is so removed from people’s lives: big, cold, clinical, computerized”. Her presentation of the “Dear Data” project (created together with Giorgia Lupi) was essentially a call to step back from data as data, and see it as something beautiful, something that we all constantly generate, but more importantly most everybody also collects on a certain topic they care about.

I particularly loved how Stefanie turned the derogatory British term of the “anorak”, a nerd obsessed with something (like jotting down train numbers), into a love declaration to “data collection as one of the oldest human experiences” – something joyful, emotional, memorable and meaningful on an individual level as it helps people to get closer to something they enjoy.

Summary

Overall, the Datensummit 17 was an impressive event. Very well organized, in what appears to the bystander as a seamless cooperation between civil society and the ministry, and with a well thought-through set of tracks to cover prominent aspects of the field.

Unlike other events, where I walk away with a clear “lessons learned” in mind, it took me a long weekend to connect the dots from my notes. Not so much because of the wide range of topics, but mainly due to the fact that my personal focus areas do not fit into any of the specific tracks of the conference, but the essence had to be mined from the experience as a whole.

In addition to above three themes, I took note of two more points:

  • The open data movement does appear to have less of a gender gap issue than what I regularly experience in other technology-related fields?
  • It is alarming how precarious the funding situation is in this field; given the importance of the work carried out around open data, data literacy and democratic engagement, it is very sad to see that many initiatives have to purely rely on free-time engagement by activists. (That said, there was quite some talk about various funds and initiatives, so events like these likely help make the needs of this community more visible.)

I strongly believe that the best way to proceed is to “shape the future of data with our inner anoraks in mind” (Stefanie Posavec) – engage activists and citizens alike to understand data and its value (but also the responsibility that comes with it). At the same time, continued pressure is needed to achieve openness in fields where more data is necessary for democratic transparency. Last but not least, with all the enthusiasm abound, it has to be remembered that education in data literacy also includes the skill to responsibly identify the fine line between data worth opening and data that puts individuals’ privacy at risk (or data that should not be collected in the first place).

Image caption: This, too, was the Datensummit17: a dedicated seating area for visitors who would not like to appear on photos testify for the genuine awareness for the risks with data.

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