This blog is part of a three part series ‘Diving deep into open data’. Other blogs in the series are:
A Successful Camp: Open Data, Governance, Digital India and Caddisfly
Are we addicted to data porn?

“If everything becomes transparent, then nobody can see anything. We just need to do this: publish openly what we are working on, use it ourselves, but more important, find ways that lead us to a real impact. Transparency is just the beginning.” these words, Harman Idema, transparency lead at the Netherlands General Directorate for International Cooperation (DGIS), made a bold and sincere statement, in the context of the “Preach What You Practice” panel of the Open Data for Development Fair, in The Hague, the Netherlands.

A couple of weeks ago, Josje Spierings and I attended this interesting gathering of people, to hear insights, experiences and challenges from experts and front-runner organisations working with open data. The topics discussed included organisational transformation, going from closed to open, open data strategy development, compliancy and international standards, and managing data quality and responsibility. The programme was very dynamic and sound, featuring a good selection of people, mainly from The Netherlands and the UK. The panel discussions were followed by a Demo Fair, where we were able to see demonstrations, mini-workshops and presentations of some of the latest practical tools and services related to open data. 

Here some of the main things that caught our attention during the panels:

There’s a Data (R)evolution going on
In August 2014 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked an independent expert advisory group to make solid recommendations on bringing about a data revolution in sustainable development. Since the group published its report, we’ve been somewhat bombarded with buzzwords like ‘Big Data’, ‘Open data’ and ‘IATI’, amongst many others. Ulrich Mans, from the Centre for Innovation, Leiden University, made his point clear: never before has it been so easy to collect, analyse and dispatch data. High connectivity levels all around the globe and high smartphone penetration are already changing the game rules, creating an overload of civic data streams. But it’s not so much about a revolution as an evolution of how we move forward with what we have, creating ecosystems that are built on trust and generate impact to reduce poverty, natural disasters and man made conflicts. We need data? Yes, but not for its own sake, for humanitarian reasons. There needs to be a human-centered design philosophy, based on open standards.

Focus on the use of data to generate people-driven policies
It was clear for everyone that open data can be a game changer with IATI (the International Aid Transparency Standard that makes information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand), just a first step towards a data-driven impact model. “How do we use the tools at hand to improve the ways we generate awareness, engagement and trust?” was a question that Caroline Kroon, initiator and founder of DataOpeners, asked the audience. We are not talking about just the technical aspects of IATI, but a focus on people. Open data creates opportunities to improve our policies and interventions for tackling complex humanitarian challenges. A point of view also shared by many in the room.

I really enjoyed listening to Reina Buijsdeputy director-general for international cooperation at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who gave what seemed to me a fresh and genuine view on the challenges the Ministry now faces. It is not only a funder, she says, but plays different roles as broker, partner, diplomat and innovator, and takes a lead in understanding that in the end, behind all the work, there are people. Thus she made a strong point that we need to move from data-driven decision making to people-driven decision making.

Engaging different audiences 
Still many policy-makers and managers wonder how open data strategies can help them to be more efficient and effective in achieving their goals. It seemed to me that everyone agreed on the fact that now is the time to move forward and demonstrate the game-changing impact of open data. In this process, we not only need to work all together, but also engage with different types of people like “data journalists”, young people and, in my opinion, also artists. Tom van der LeeOxfam Novib Campaigns Director, said it out loud: “What we really need is the power to tell these stories, in visual and emotional ways, rather than using only data sets. However, we don’t have all the answers.” But he did point to Hans Rosling for some perspectives on the matter. How do we provide and find the information that people need? How do we increase the levels of data literacy? How do we create bridges between different sectors of civil society?

We might be heading to the second curve
As I am currently reading “The Second Curve” by Charles Handy, it is inevitable for me to associate the main concept of this book with what I saw at this event. In his book, Handy talks about the Sigmoid curve, an S-shaped curve that relates the life cycle of human things, organisations, relationships and even movements. In every case, there is an initial period of investment, – be it financial, educational, or trial and experiment – a period when the input exceeds the output, when the line of the S dips down. Then, as results begin to show and glimmers of progress emerge, the line moves up. If all goes well, it continues to rise, but the time always comes when the curve peaks and begins its descent. There seems to be no escape from the Sigmoid curve. However there can always be a second curve. The key aspect is that the second curve needs to start before the first curve peaks. Only then will there be enough resources – money, time, energy – to cover that first initial dip. It’s usually a moment of doubt and uncertainty.


Above: The S-shaped Sigmoid curves that can be used to describe life cycles.
Towards the end, Siem Vaessen, co-director and co-founder of Zimmerman & Zimmerman,  grabbed the microphone and put it out there in the open: “And what will happen if finally IATI is not the way to move forward, and dies?” he asked to an attentive and captive audience. Everyone agreed that this is the moment to bring forward these doubts, try to bring clarity to uncertainty and that IATI is just a thing – a language, a standard. We can already work with what we have. We now need to figure out how to make more impact with it. And if IATI disappears, we’ll just build on what we’ve learnt during the journey.

Reflecting on the openness and sincerity of the conversations, one could notice the active growth and maturity of the sector towards the use, upcoming challenges, and benefits of using the International Aid Transparency Standard. The future of IATI is being actively discussed, and its just a matter of time before it moves away from being considered a ‘want to have’ to a ‘must to have’. A want to have, because donors ask for it, towards what everybody agrees we should be heading to: a must have that will help organisations, civil society and governments better talk to each other and will allow everyone to track their work and improve the impact of it. Impact is where to put the focus moving forward.

We might be exactly at that crossing point between the two curves, heading to the beginning of an exciting second one, and hopefully moving upwards. A key factor in all of this, of course, will be the way in which we’ll all work together to make it happen. 

Alvaro de Salvo is communications executive at Akvo, based in Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter @aj_desalvo.