Open Development and the OKfestival

  • Sept. 28, 2012

Kim Borrowdale, IATI Delivery Manager, recently attended Okfest 2012 in Helsinki (Finland) and has shared her personal account of the conference with us. The theme was Open Knowledge in Action with a full week of participatory sessions, keynote lectures, workshops, hackathons and satellite events organised by diverse communities from over 40 nations across the globe.(Event Summary).

The event was divided into topic streams, with one of these, the Open Development stream, specifically designed to explore how the OKFest community can engage with key development challenges.

Over to you Kim….

Just about every session at OKFest was live streamed with delegates sending in presentations, photos, videos and feedback to the OKFestival team as I type. As everything you could possibly need from the festival will be available to you over the next couple of weeks, I won’t bore you with a long list of all of the sessions I attended, or wish I had attended. Instead, I’d like to share my top five takeaways.

(Apologies to speakers in advance for any poetic license I may have unwittingly taken from ear to notepad):

  1. “Open development looks very different depending on where you sit in the global development process” – Blane Harvey, OKFest panel member from Institute of Development Studies

The very first session in the Open development Topic stream was all about defining what we mean when we say open development.

While we all agree that open development is a good thing and is something we should be working towards, there is no real guide for the community as to how to work more openly. We’ve spent many years talking about open data, but open development is so much more than that. During the discussion at this session it was clear that we needed a “participatory process”, “one that is more horizontal than top down”, and that empowers citizens to claim their role in deciding and managing development processes.

Openness doesn’t just mean making things publicly available, but is about involving all actors in the process. But, what does this mean in practice?

Philip Thigo from The Social Development Network (Kenya) made an interesting point about the language used in the development community.  In open development, words and phrases like ‘the developing world’ etc. would not be used as citizens would be part of the process rather than recipients. If open is an ‘attitude’, how does our tone of voice need to change? This needs to be more than just a concept. We need to take concrete steps to get to open development.  John Adams from DfID (Department for International Development) used IATI as an example of something that started as a political commitment to transparency, and, with firm actions, has developed into the IATI Standard and clear steps for implementation. What are the steps we need to take to move open development from a concept into a working infrastructure?

TIP: Trying to explain Open Development? Open for Change launched a great video at OKfest to help you do just that – Watch it here

  1. Knowing is not enough. We must apply. Willing is not enough. We must do.” – Bruce Lee via Simon Parrish from aidinfo

Putting aside the entertainment value of seeing Bruce Lee on an IATI presentation slide, this quote sums up the point  a number of speakers were making in relation to good intentions and developing robust solutions over time versus getting on with it and learning and adapting as we go.

We have seen this in the IATI community. Yes, we have structures in place to change our approach more formally when needed, but this should not slow the pace of those leading the way in opening up their development data. What we have learned is that it doesn’t have to be perfect, get it out there to the community so it can be used, refined, and developed.

Michael Edson made some interesting points on this subject, in his keynote speech ‘Lego, Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts’, as part of the Open Cultural Heritage topic stream,. As Director of of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution, he has seen museum websites go from the authoritative voice to one of many on the web, often far down the list behind YouTube, Wikipedia and community discussion forums.  If we continue with the mind-set that we need to plan and perfect over months and months before publishing, we will get left behind – “Stop thinking about it and do it – Don’t talk about what you want to do, just do it. Mock it up and talk very fast”.

WARNING: You may become addicted to Googling lego re-enactments of historical events after watching Michael’s keynote speech.

  1. “Get to the exciting stuff. I’m so bored by the basics, there is so much more we can do!” – IATI Technical Advisory Group member (possibly overheard at the pub)

Now I’m pretty sure this was a reference to IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) and the elements currently required (link). I’m not sure where I heard the comment but I was struck by this point. Yes! Why are we limiting ourselves to some kind of common standard that is a mere minimum?! We should do more; push the limits of the data we seek out on behalf of partner countries.

This was even clearer after attending several IATI workshops. The development community is an ambitious one, constantly asking each other what this means at grass roots level. However, what is also clear from these sessions is that when it comes to understanding what it means to be transparent, all actors in the development space are at different places on the transparency spectrum – and it involves so much more than just picking and choosing the data to make available. There are policy and process conversations to be had including short, medium and long term technology and resource plans to be made.

We currently have 82 IATI publishers and plan to report on their compliance to the IATI Standard and future implementation plans early in 2013. While many have made outstanding progress since committing to IATI, I think it would be fair to say that not one of the publishers has a perfect scorecard just yet. As each organisation finds it way in this increasingly transparent world, we should remind ourselves that complying with standards like IATI is not where effort ends. It is just laying solid (accessible and comparable) foundations for being able to “get to the exciting stuff”.

TIP: Delegates who attended the IATI workshop for NGOs found it useful when Joni Hillman from BOND and Rolf Kleef from PARTOS talked them through the IATI five point plan for compliance. This approach may be useful for your organisation – find a copy here

  1. “What about my mother in a small village, with no phone, no internet and no English?” – came up in just about every session but I think I heard John Ndungu from iLabAfrica say it first

When you have a lot of people who are passionate about data, technology and development, it is easy to get caught up in finding the best technical solution and drill down to the detailed data requirements needed for that solution.

But, at the Africa Labs session in particular, it was evident that whatever the question that needs answering, the solution will need to be a combination of communication channels, from cutting edge to traditional, depending on the end user. Yes, we need ways to show data that is accessible to those who rely heavily on the internet. These are often important internal engagement tools for organisations and governments needing to progress the commitment to transparency, as well as influencing and decision tools for those working directly on projects and programmes in country. But, what about John’s mother in the village? How will we know what information she needs and what format will be most palpable for her?

There were some great reminders at OKfest about the importance of including traditional channels of communication such as community radio and print media. There was also recognition of increased mobile and smartphone use but some limited knowledge of the features of such – perhaps text messaging or voicemail should be considered as well as mobile responsive design of web tools?

And, once you determine the right channels to give access to information, what is relevant to each recipient? While we can ‘type’ communities according to the communication channels most relevant to them, we cannot assume that within this grouping that each individual is seeking out the same information for the same reasons.

TIP: Use videos to help stakeholders in your organisation understand the different perspectives and challenges in partner countries. During the Africa Lab, our friends from El Salvador showed a video that was very effective in showing how even people with similar social circumstances are often coming from completely different perspectives in terms of the information they want to access.

  1. “Who knew they are trying to do the same stuff as us in the museum world?” – Me, as I sat in on one of the Cultural Heritage topic stream lectures

In one of the sessions in the Open Cultural Heritage topic stream, Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission and Commissioner for the Digital Agenda gave a virtual address, highlighting the European Commission’s commitment to policies, projects and funding to support open data and open access, including for public sector information, cultural data, science and research.

What was interesting to me is that we in the development community have a similar agenda to those in other sectors – from museums and culture to science and universities. We are looking to open up access to information in order to inform future decisions and direction. What have we learned with open data and work on IATI that could help other sectors in taking practical steps to transparency? And, most importantly for us, what are lessons have those learned in other sectors that could help progress the open development agenda?

TIP: Think about your friends in different sectors. Have they made progress in opening up their knowledge where you haven’t? Or perhaps they can give you a different perspective on how to communicate. Make time for a coffee with someone outside your sector.

Find out more

For detail on the lectures, workshops, hack sessions and much more, keep an eye on the OKFestival website. If you are on twitter, take a look at #okfest for twitter comments throughout the conference and #opendev for development specific points of interest.

Kim Borrowdale, IATI Delivery Manager

[email protected]