GuideStar International's Blog

July 4, 2011

A Review of the Guardian ACTIVATE Summit (London)

by Dinesh Venkateswaran, Manager – Global Data Acquisitions, TechSoup Global

Guardian’s ACTIVATE is an annual conference that aims to bring together leaders in Media, Government and Technology to activatedly discuss approaches to addressing nagging challenges of the current times (including the grand ones of poverty, dictatorship and natural disaster). This time on 22nd June at King’s Place in London, ACTIVATE’s assemblage of personalities included senior bureaucrats, executives in multilaterals and high-impact entrepreneurs in the social media space, mostly from the western world and Africa, besides others. Being a novice in the Third Sector, my interest in this conference was mainly about the opportunity it gave me to hear leaders in the sector discuss the challenges faced at the grassroots level; the most fundamental problems that people in less favourable environments face and how we could help solve them. However, the surprise was: regardless of the stated topics of panel discussions, the most prominent and recurring theme debated at the conference emerged to be: value of data in ‘saving the world’.

As towering a proposition as that may sound, the data theme seemed the most natural direction that each of the eight or so panel discussions could take; the most fundamental of considerations that united the eminent panellists’ individual professional pursuits. Ironically, it kept me interested in the discussions, and, I believe, helped broaden my perspective of how we could potentially employ data towards triggering social change, great and small. Broadly, the topics discussed included democracy, value of mobile technologies, distribution of power and wealth, transparency in data and governance, profiting from social change projects and access to data and tools. Below are some quotes from the conference:

  • “Connection technologies could and should disrupt and redistribute power… If you are a control freak you are in the wrong century”: Alec Ross, Senior Adviser to US Secretary of State, speaking on Open Governance
  • “(In Africa) the race is on to find what mobiles can do in areas as disparate as public health, governance and education”: Rakesh Rajani, Tweweza, talking about the potential dramatic impact of the mobile phone in Africa in the next five years
  • “Vision is just as important as technology”: Ricken Patel of Awaaz.org talking about how focus on technology many times eclipses the social goal.
  • “It’s not about technology, it’s finally about who uses it and how”: Ken Banks of Kiwanja and the tendency of social media people to get preoccupied with technology.
  • “15% of UK population hasn’t experienced the Internet even once”: Martha Lane Fox, UK Government’s Digital champion, on ‘access to all’ being critical to achieving equality in society.
  • “I freak out hearing people talk about using mobiles for ICT for development in Africa… we in Africa are not different from the rest of the world… we like to buy mobile phones to have fun, talk to friends, listen to music, tweet and connect on Facebook”: Ory Okolloh, Google’s Head of Policy and Government Relations, Africa.
  • “Leadership must be strategic… should enable power in members and facilitate a global impact of highly local activity”: Jeremy Heimans, Purpose, Australia, while he argued that micro payments are a better funding model than plain charity, for social change projects.

Storify has published a summary of tweets from the conference, if you are interested in knowing more of what people said. On the core themes of the conference, many examples of successful social entrepreneurship were presented, including the KickStarter for crowd funding, Jolitics for online activism, Palindrome Advisors to accelerate professional managerial involvement in philanthropy, Beatbullying for empowerment of children, Twaweza’s information brokering for social change in Tanzania, and the MyFarm project that enables about 10k internet denizens collectively run a farm. There was a short and informative film, too, titled Up in Smoke, on sustainable and innovative farming, which I enjoyed very much. The role of technology in these initiatives varied largely, but there was one thing common to them – the huge role of people in powering the initiatives.

Personally, though, the summit helped me realise that we should not only extract and visualise insights from raw data but must also develop the skills needed to tell the stories that need to be told through data. That simply was the lingering message that remains.

May 24, 2011

Data, Data Everywhere — But How Does It Relate to You And Your Work?

By Keisha C Taylor

As Internet and mobile access grows, more data is made open online. It is being used and analyzed by the media, the private sector, governments, and civil society organizations to inform their decisions. Open data, real time data, and linked data are being discussed in many forums. And so are the ways in which governments, civil society organizations, and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) can work with the private sector to benefit the public using the data analysis. Data-related events are highlighting the value of data and are addressing technical, design, political, reliability, validity, and inclusion issues that arise with its disclosure.

An interactive example of data visualisation - OECD Better Life Index © OECD (2011) http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org

Hal Varian, Google’s Chief Economist, says “The ability to take data — to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it — that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades, not only at the professional level but even at the educational level for elementary school kids, for high school kids, for college kids. Because now we really do have essentially free and ubiquitous data. So the complimentary scarce factor is the ability to understand that data and extract value from it.”  This post highlights some of the organizations that are involved in this type of work and points to some of the forums discussing this topic.

The European Public Sector Information Platform has a great list of open data events. And for those of you interested in open government data events, have a look at the events calendar that is being updated by the Open Knowledge Foundation. A London-based nonprofit, Open Knowledge Foundation is at the forefront of promoting open knowledge to help citizens and society.

A few of the many notable events are:

These kinds of events, however, still tend to be dominated by the technology geek, statistician, and government official though civil society organizations and other organizations involved in cultural fields are also exploring the potential of using open data. For civil society organizations on the sidelines of this data movement, the everyday media’s use of data for reporting provides a practical demonstration of just how useful it can be. (I would recommend having a look at some really cool videos featured by Stanford on Journalism in the Age of Data.) Many eyes not only provides visualizations but a forum for anyone to upload data and create visualizations and Flowing Data illustrates how designers, programmers, and statisticians are making good use of data . A few practical examples of the use of data for reporting are listed below.

These are just a few of what are arguably limitless examples how data is being used to help us understand our world. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in London recently hosted the workshop “Civil Society 2.0: how open data will change your organisation and what you can do about it,” and the presentations have been made available online. If indeed “Data is the New Oil,” civil society organizations (CSOs) should be learning how to generate, find, and use data to help inform and improve their work. The appropriate use of data can help all CSOs to advance the overall well-being of individuals and their local communities.

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