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NetSquared Camp: Session on Non-Profits and Open Civic Data

As has become fairly predictable for me, I could not resist the lure of a session wrangling. So, a little at the spur of the moment, I volunteered to lead a session on Non-Profits and Open Civic Data at Vancouver’s first NetSquaredCamp. (I’ve written and thought about these types of events before; the Unconference category of my blog has my other writing on this, or start with the Unconference entry in Wikipedia if this is the first you’ve heard of it.)

I don’t remember quite what I said in my pitch, so until the video playback is available, this is what I think I said the session would be about:

Governments at the local municipal, provincial and (hopefully) federal level are starting to make data about what they do for us open. Let’s talk about how non-profits might make use of open data as part of their advocacy and convening conversations on what is important to us in improving our neighbourhoods and daily lives.

The session was nice and small, about 8 people at the end. I started by describing the brief history of open data, starting with Apps for Democracy but also mentioning the closer-to-home Apps for Climate Action contest, as well as the absolutely staggering amount of work that started even before “open data” caught on and has still continued to go strong.

What I was really enthusiastic to talk about in the session, however, was what role non-profits can play in the open data movement. It’s one thing to just make data open, and, as Michael Gurstein put it, solve or surmount the question of access. It’s quite a stretch to go from that to actual, tangible, meaningful social change. While it’s a good start, there’s plenty of other hard work to follow: not only making the data relevant and interesting and legible and understandable, but also connecting what the data says and means to us, to the people whose work is relevant to that data in some way — where I would categorize non-profits.

In other words, the next step is convening the conversation around datasets — a goal, I’m happy to say, has been echoed and identified by other open data advocates and those I’ve heard speak on the topic  from government. I’m ready to be wrong about this, but I imagine their challenge is, is what exactly goes into convening that conversation, given specific constraints they may be facing either legally, politically, or from existing internal culture in government.

A couple things I remember mentioning that I’ll link to in case the participants wanted to follow up with me on some things of interest:

  • Green Building Brain — directed specifically to the attendee interested in visualizations related to architecture. This project, bootstrapped by the Vancouver Design Nerds, is an excellent resource. It isn’t open data in the sense that it’s not centered on a government service, but the Cascadia Green Building Council and a number of other organizations contribute data to it, and it is intended as a crowd-sourced resource for sustainability professionals and community groups, and definitely contributes a lot of values to the conversations about buildings and their surroundings.
  • Geek feminism — I didn’t mention it in this session but I did talk to others over the course of the day, and I still think it’s extremely important even to this topic. One of the participants was a volunteer for the organizational Women Against Violence Against Women, and when she mentioned her non-profit, I reflected that data analysis can be very intimidating as an extremely technical and male-dominated field. Given my interest in acknowledging and incorporating local knowledge, I think the awareness of the open data movement by others working towards progressive causes, especially where data helps us have the conversation about what is actually happening in our cities and neighbourhoods, is vital. I don’t remember where I first heard about this blog, but chances are extremely good it has to do with one of the geekiest feminists in my life, one Leigh Honeywell, who, I just learned, contributes to writing there!
  • Toronto Star Maps of the Week — one attendee to the session had a particular interest in war veterans, and I mentioned that this blog once posted a map of where in the Toronto area military recruits came from. I’m sad to see that the writer of the Maps of the Week blog, Patrick Cain has since moved on from the Toronto Star and is no longer posting, as I really enjoyed that work, and am grateful to The Star for sharing it. Fortunately, he seems to share data geekery on his blog regularly!
  • Apps for Climate Action — bears repeating, given that the submitted apps are now open for voting on.

I may continue to add links to their post, as I remember what we spoke about. Thanks again to everyone who attended, and please let me know in the comments if you want to mention something else you enjoyed or wanted to know more about from the session.

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