Een paar weken geleden had ik een gesprek van een uur met Bart Ensink van Little Rocket over mijn werk en mijn bedrijf The Green Land. Dat gesprek is als zesde aflevering van de Datadriftig podcast nu te beluisteren. We ‘kwamen elkaar tegen’ in de interactie op een draadje op Mastodon in december. Little Rocket is een ebusiness bedrijf en maakt voor hun zakelijke klanten data bruikbaarder. Het is gevestigd in Enschede, dus bracht ik een bezoek aan de stad waar ik tot 6 jaar geleden woonde, en dook Enschede en de Universiteit Twente vaker op in het gesprek.
Today marks the end of my work this year. A day later than planned due to the schools closing a week early. This meant that my and E’s available work time at home was halved so we could split the time caring for Y. There are always a few things that really do need to be finished, thus carrying over into what would otherwise have been the first day off.
In my company we gave the entire team next week off, meaning we don’t expect anyone of us to work, and won’t count the days against the default 5 weeks of paid leave per year everyone has.
It’s been a challenging second pandemic year. At times each of us struggled with energy, motivation and mental wellbeing. I hope we’ve done well by our team to support them at those times. We tried to spend time together regularly and have fun within what was possible. I’ve noticed a general slow down of work in the late spring towards summer. As if the entire world was tired. After the summer things kicked back into high gear however.
Despite that slowing down before summer, which was noticeable in our turnover as well, economically it ultimately was not a challenging year. This year, like last year, we’ve done some 15% better than the pre-pandemic 2019. For 2022 much has already been lined up. I will have the pleasure to focus completely on the new wave of EU digital and data related legislation. In fact, as far as my own time is concerned, I’m already overbooked for the entire year. In short, we are looking to expand our team again.
Last month it was a decade ago that me and my business partners decided to start our open data consultancy The Green Land. To me the past three years, despite the pandemic dominating two of them, were the best of those ten, with a fun and growing team, and meaningful projects.
A well deserved break for all of us is in order therefore.
As of our last all hands meeting we have moved our company to using NextCloud on a server in a German data center. This is the second major step in improving on our information hygiene in the company, after adopting RocketChat and leaving Slack.
I had created the cloud already last May, but we had not transitioned everyone in the company and all our work. That transition has now been made.
It allows us to avoid having to work with clients in cloud environments like Google Docs, it has OnlyOffice for online collaboration in documents, it allows to avoid file transfer services in favor of being able to provide (time limited, password protected) download links from our own server, and it has integrated STUN/TURN support so we can do (video)conference calls from within our own environment. It’s a managed server/service for a few hundred Euros per year. A key benefit is being able to nudge our clients to routines less exposed to the data hungry silos, and also to show compliance with (regularly inconsistent and differing) rules regarding which online services they do and don’t allow. Setting an example is in itself a benefit given our work on transparent data governance, data ethics and accountability.
In the coming weeks we’ll aim to get fully accustomed to our new working environment, but so far it has been pretty self-evident.
Screenshot from working with a colleague in OnlyOffice (content blurred obviously)
We are working our way through a list of things to improve our overall information hygiene, a discussion I started last spring. It involves changes at the company level (like Nextcloud and Rocketchat) and changes at the individual level (helping colleagues e.g. with password management. We moved all of us onto the same password manager, that also includes the option to share passwords from a company account). It focuses on tools and technological measures, as well as on behaviour and work routines. And it looks at both laptop and mobile devices. I’ve created a ‘information hygiene ladder’ on those three dimensions, with a different level of information security at each rung, that we can strive for. The upper end, the “I’m being targeted by a three letter agency”, we’ll never address I’m sure. But there is a wealth of opportunities to improve our information security level before that extreme stage.
We had been using Slack since 2016, and used it both for ourselves, and with some network partners we work with. Inviting in (government) clients we never did, because we couldn’t guarantee the location of the data shared. At some point we passed the free tier’s limits, meaning we’d have to upgrade to a paid plan to have access to our full history of messages.
Rocket.chat is an open source alternative that is offered as a service, but also can be self-hosted. We opted for a Rocket.chat specific package with OwnCube. It’s an Austrian company, but our Rocket.chat instance is hosted in the Netherlands.
Slack offers a very well working export function for all your data. Rocket.chat can easily import Slack archives, including user accounts, channels and everything else.
With the move complete, we now have full control over our own data and access to our entire history. The cost of hosting (11.50 / month) is less than Slack would already charge for 2 users when paid annually (12.50 / month). The difference being we have 14 users. That works out as over 85% costs saving. Adding users, such as clients during a project, doesn’t mean higher costs now either, while it will always be a better deal than Slack as long as there’s more than 1 person in the company.
We did keep the name ‘slack’ as the subdomain on which our self-hosted instance resides, to ease the transition somewhat. All of us switched to the Rocket.chat desktop and mobile apps (Elmine from Storymines helping with navigating the installs and activating the accounts for those who wanted some assistance).
Visually, and in terms of
user experience human experience, it’s much the same as Slack. The only exception being the creation of bots, which requires some server side wrangling I haven’t looked into yet.
The move to Rocket.chat is part of a path to more company-wide information hygiene (e.g. we now make sure all of us use decent password managers with the data hosted on EU servers, and the next step is running our own cloud e.g. for collaborative editing with clients and partners), and more information security.
Last week ten of the twelve Dutch Provinces met at the South-Holland Provincial government to discuss open data, and exchange experiences, seeking to inspire each other to do more on open government data. I participated as part of my roles as open data project lead for both the Province of Overijssel, and the Province Fryslân.
There were several topics of discussion.
- The National Open Government Action Plan (part of the OGP effort), a new version of which is due next spring, and for which input is currently sought by the Dutch government.
- A proposal by the team behind the national open data platform to form a ‘high value data list’ for provincial data sets.
- Several examples were discussed of (open) data being used to enhance public interaction.
I want to briefly show those examples (and might blog about the other two later).
Make it usable, connect to what is really of significance to people
Basically the three examples that were presented during the session present two lessons:
1) Make data usable, by presenting them better and allow for more interaction. That way you more or less take up position half-way between what is/was common (presenting only abstracted information), and open data (the raw detailed data): presenting data in a much more detailed way, and making it possible for others to interact with the data and explore.
2) Connect to what people really care about. It is easy to assume what others would want to know or would need in terms of data, it is less easy to actually go outside and listen to people and entrepreneurs first what type of data they need around specific topics. However, it does provide lots of vital clues as to what data will actually find usage, and what type of questions people want to be able to solve for themselves.
That second point is something we always stress in our work with governments, so I was glad to hear it presented at the session.
There were three examples presented.
South-Holland put subsidies on a map
The Province of South-Holland made a map that shows where subsidies are provided and for what. It was made to better present to the public the data that exists about subsidies, als in order to stimulate people to dive deeper into the data. The map links to where the actual underlying data should be found (but as far as I can tell, the data isn’t actually provided there). A key part of the presentation was about the steps they took to make the data presentable in the first place, and how they created a path for doing that which can be re-used for other types of data they are seeking to house in their newly created data warehouse. This way presenting other data sources in similar ways will be less work.
The subsidy map
Gelderland provides insight into their audit-work
Provinces have a task in auditing municipal finances. The Province of Gelderland has used an existing tool (normally used for presenting statistical data) to provide more detail about the municipal finances they audited. Key point here again was to show how to present data better to the public, how that plays a role in communicating with municipalities as well, and how it provides stepping stones to entice people to dive deeper. The tool they use provides download links for the underlying data (although the way that is done can still be significantly improved, as it currently only allows downloads of selections you made, so you’d have to sticht them back together to reconstruct the full data set)
Screenshot of the Gelderland audit data tool
Flevoland listens first, then publishes data
The last example presented was much less about the data, and much more about the ability to really engage with citizens, civil society and businesses and to stimulate the usage of open data that way. The Province Flevoland is planning major renovation work on bridges and water locks in the coming years, and their aim is to reduce hindrance. Therefore they already now, before work is starting, are having conversations with various people that live near or regularly pass by the objects that will be renovated. To hear what type of data might help them to less disrupt their normal routines. Resulting insights are that where currently plans are published in a generic way, much more specific localized data is needed, as well as much more detailed data about what is going to happen in a few days time. This allows people to be flexible, such as a farmer deciding to harvest a day later, or to move the harvest aways over water and not the road. Detailed data also means communicating small changes and delays in the plans. Choosing the right channels is important too. Currently e.g. the Province announces construction works on Twitter, but no local farmer goes there for information. They do use a specific platform for farmers where they also get detailed data about weather, water etc, and distributing localized data on construction works there would be much more useful. So now they will collaborate with that platform to reach farmers better. (My company The Green Land is supporting the Province, 2 municipalities and the water board in the province, in this project)
Overview of the 16 bridges and waterlocks that will be renovated in the coming years
Various stakeholders around each bridge or waterlock are being approached
On November 25th an international Open Data panel took place at the Swedish Internet Days. On the kind invitation of Vinnova, Sweden’s innovation agency, I took part in the panel, to present on the current status and coming steps in Open Data in the Netherlands.
I was lucky to join Malte Beyer-Katzenberger (EC), Richard Stirling (ODI), Cathrine Lippert (Digitisation Agency of Denmark), and Daniel Dietrich (OKFN Germany), who also gave their views on Open Data in their respective countries, or the EC’s plans in the case of Malte.
It was great to share a panel with them, as well as to have the opportunity to talk to each other and share our insights, new experiences and examples. Face to face time is scarce, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in Stockholm.
Below you will find the videos of the various panel contributions, as well as my own slides.
After the panel I had the opportunity to catch up with Peter Krantz over lunch. Peter’s a long time advocate for open data in Sweden, and although we had interacted often on-line in the past years, this was the first time we met.