The culmination of over a year of work
Last month we concluded a project that started in November 2013. For the Province of North-Holland we worked with 9 municipalities to help them bring publishing open data into their normal routines.
We celebrated the end of the program with an afternoon conference of 125 participants in Amsterdam, sharing the experiences, the good, the bad, the splendid, the ugly.
The program we designed is based on the notion that making open data part of normal operations requires learning by doing, and learning from others who are doing the same thing. Also by taking time for it, and us helping out on the work floor, you allow more colleagues to get involved as well as see new knowledge settle.
To make sure open data is not something ‘extra’ a government does for others (‘nice to have’) we seek to position open data as a policy tool (‘need to have’), that helps governments to engage with stakeholders and impact their own policy goals.
The preparation phase was aimed at finding a number of municipalities to participate. They had to allocate people and time to it, and there needed to be some current local policy issues that provided a possible angle for open data. We talked to about 16 local governments, and in the end 9 joined the program.
Three implementation phases were part of the plan: 1) find internal support, raise awareness, and find a suitable policy topic as context. 2) select and publish data, find initial external stakeholders, 3) engage with stakeholders, help them use the data, and make the publishing process permanent.
In practice these three phases weren’t discreet, but overlapped and never ‘finished’.
A year long execution phase
The execution phase of the program started in March 2014, with a high-energy kick-off event where some 60 civil servants and political functionaries participated, and the 9 participating municipalities and the province signed the ‘North-Holland Smarter’ Manifesto. (The manifesto was a beautiful side project by my colleague Frank and our artist in residence Ate: wooden panels with different data visualizations of the region, and laser cutted pixelated shapes of the participating local governments to place signatures on. An afternoon well spent in the local FabLab Protospace)
The participating municipalities gathered for collective working days 4 times, and in between worked on their own. We helped out with providing guidance, examples and facilitating session and workshop both internally with civil servants, and externally with citizens, businesses and organizations. Each worked around a locally relevant theme, ranging from flash floods to new entrepreneurs in socially disadvantaged neighborhoods, from regional public transport for the elderly and schools, to financial transparency.
In the end most local governments started publishing data (not a small feat for non-urban local governments I’d say), and some moved it towards their line management successfully. A few first examples of seeing the data used exist, and most don’t see the end of the program as the end of their efforts but as the beginning.
Overall we included a few hundred civil servants and several dozen external stakeholders. Some of that work is still ongoing with our involvement, until May.
The final event
We ended the program with a final event to present our learnings. Some 125 people from across the Netherlands, representing local, regional and national government entities came. We shared what we experienced roughly in the same way the program phases were designed, providing the participating municipalities with ample space to discuss what they had done and learned, what worked and what didn’t work at all. Some presented their data publishing platform, others their next steps, some recounted how they helped learn colleagues use data better themselves, others how settling on a policy theme early didn’t work for them. Entrepreneurs and data re-users talked about how they work with data.
It was a good and informal way to convey the actual work involved and how some things can take more time than thought (usually the social aspects), while others turn out to be much easier than anticipated (usually the technical aspects).
Getting past the hype
Plans and reality never match, and I think our program created the space and time for that to be ok and part of the journey. Our client with the Province said that to her the project was to help people move beyond the hype towards where open data is part of the normal way of doing things, and softening the ’trough of desillusion’ in the hype cycle. Judging by the quotes we collected of participants we succeeded in doing that.