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I got together with the team yesterday behind the Aid Information Challenge, a ‘barcamp’-style series of parallel events that will be held in London and New York on Friday March 5th (NYC) and Saturday March 6th (London), 2010.

Photo: Simon Parry, Jonathan Gray and Cormac Nolan. Borough Market, Southwark, London. 25 January 2010.

The London event’s being driven by two key organisations – the Open Knowledge Foundation and Publish What You Fund – and seeks to build a community of people who are interested in (and capable of working with) datasets generated around the spending of international development aid.

Here’s the basic lowdown:

Governments around the world are opening up data for reuse by the public – enabling the creation of websites and services which allow people to explore this information in new ways.

We are helping to open up new datasets related to international development, and are looking for compelling ideas and exciting prototypes for things that could be built using this material. The Aid Information Challenge will be an opportunity for you to refine and develop your ideas, and present them to a panel of leading web developers and representatives from funding bodies, government departments and NGOs. There will be cash prizes and opportunities for collaboration and support to help make your idea happen.

Clearly this is a topic of huge relevance to Akvo and our partners. Making progress visible about water and sanitation development projects, in ways that others can learn from and build upon, is at the centre of Akvo’s strategy. We know instinctively that once that happens, quality will improve and more money will flow to projects. But it’s great to find people who develop the case – and bring it to governments, donors and NGO leadership.

I’ve attended a series of events over recent months related to the opening up of US and UK government data – a great notion. Yet these have tended to share one trait – a fixation with the big pile of data that will be available, usually in the form of statistics or documents, for all to use. But what is the point? Data is overwhelming. You have to decide what you want to do, what you want to understand, what you want to change. And then ask questions. And then see what mixture of data can help you answer them. Often it will be combinations of datasets that have never been mixed before, to answer questions that we’ve never before had the chance to ask. It could be photos, or video, rather than spreadsheets. So here’s what I’m stressing – don’t get fixated by the data. Get fixated on trying to make things happen. Real, tangible improvements to people’s living conditions.

I first met the Open Knowledge Foundation about 16 months ago – it’s led by Rufus Pollack with the support of the smart and passionate Jonathan Gray, its community manager. Rufus did a presentation at the Camden Roundhouse in 2008 which set out the way open source organisations work, and the kind of people who need to lead them, that was absolutely in tune with my experience. In particular he described Thomas Bjelkeman’s personality traits down to a tee. Which I’ve gotta say was kinda reassuring. OKFN focuses on promoting and supporting the sharing of knowledge through open licenses across all areas, so it’s really exciting to see it turning its spotlight onto international development aid here.

Yesterday was my first meeting with Publish What You Fund. In the interview below I talk with Cormac Nolan, who’s the man to talk to about the upcoming event. I also had the chance to do a fairly in-depth interview with Karin Christiansen, its director and founder, which you can find over on WaterCube.tv here.

You can follow Publish What You Fund on Twitter.

I’ll add links to this blog, as more details get finalised.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo.