Inflation, poor supply, great demand – a summary of Argentina’s open data

Last month our project progressed and move to Israel. We visited the land of the milk and honey in mid May, and we are super excited about what we found. However, we still have some catch up to do from our South American expedition. In the next three posts we will share some of our findings regarding the three countries we visited – Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, and will lay the road toward a completely different region and politics. The first post of the three will focus on Argentina and will bring some of main findings from our research there regarding innovation.

Government and Politics

When it comes to open government data, Argentina is lagging behind other countries in the region. It is currently ranked in the 48th place on Open Knowledge Global Open Data Index. Moreover, ongoing efforts to release more data at the national level appear stalled. While we were in Argentina we attended a roundtable meeting of government and civil society which was suppose to create an action plan for an Open Government Partnership. However, since we came back, we were saddened to hear that the action plan was postponed and now is delayed.

Instead, it is at other levels of government where the release and use of open data is more widespread, especially in the case of the capital city, Buenos Aires.In 2007, a new mayor, Mauricio Macri, was elected. Macri’s election brought a new opportunity for the city of Buenos Aires, and a new open government data directive started to develop. From our visit to the City of Buenos Aires’ Open Data Team, we were impressed by how committed the local government is to improving the publishing and use of open data. Besides having a comprehensive open data portal, the government see themselves as part of the community. This is particularly significant given the importance of communities in developing open data innovation that we’ve noted previously. From the perspective of the city government, there is a need for a shift in mindset when it comes to re-use of open data – there is a need for constant dialogue between the data consumers – civil society, businesses and government offices themselves – in order to create productive flows of data itself and best practices in using it. We were impressed from our interviews that other open data stakeholders in the city feel the same, and share our sense the city government sits as part of, rather than outside of, the community.

The Open Data team explained to us what they saw as three core purposes of open government data: creating transparency, achieving compliance with public services, and to provide additional economic value. Crucially, these objectives are not entirely concurrent; rather, the team explained how establishing greater transparency was the first aim – great strides have already been made here – while true economic value is a longer-term aim, and work in this area is just getting started,  for example with a new policy of city procurement, which will allow new businesses to apply for a tender and promote more applications.

The city government’s progressive attitude to opening data was in contrast to the comparative lack of movement in this area at the national level. This point of difference could be productive, however. While different levels of government may deal with different types of data, the hope might be that if citizens see the benefits of open data at a city level, the clamour for more releases of data at the national level may grow.


Whiteboards and post its in Buenos Aires Open Data office


Another sector that caught our eyes in Argentina was the media, and here we found two main actors. The first was the Argentine branch of Hacks/Hackers, a group which allows journalists and hackers to create solutions to show and explain data easily to the public. The Argentine branch, we were proudly informed, is the largest outside the U.S., and the enthusiasm and activity was palpable in our interviews with some of the group’s leaders. The group organises a Media Party every year in which other data journalist, activist and hackers come together to create quality data journalism as well as useful apps such as Hackdash – which helps to bring the community together and to set goals and tasks for the group’s hackathons.

Alongside innovative local initiatives such as this, we also found a great drive amongst sections of the traditional media  to use open data. La Nación, a leading national newspaper,, has pioneered innovative, useful, and frankly beautiful and useful uses of open data in their journalism. The La Nacion Data team is led by highly motivated journalists and technical specialists (most of whom are women) who are working around the clock to make compelling stories from whatever data they can get their hands on. As part of their wider outreach efforts, La Nacion is also promoting data journalism in local universities and is very much part of the open data community themselves. They even publish data on their own open data catalog, in which other members of the public can analyse and use for their use. One popular dataset tries to predict inflation, which fills an important need since the government’s national statistics office itself does not supply this information itself.

Mor and Josh in La Nacion office

Mor and Josh in La Nacion office


Both Hacks/Hackers and La Nacion are filling a vacuum opened up by the absence of national government efforts in this area, scraping and curating  their own datasets, for their own use in order to inform citizens. Yet the battle is ongoing, as sometimes these initiatives unintentionally create a catch-22 situation. Activists and journalists will often scrape data from government websites and create a lasting open database which is machine readableand create a database, just to notice later that the government has changed, for example, the aggregation level, so that the data can not be shown to the public and individuals patterns cannot be detected. Alternatively, sometimes the whole data collection is stopped at once.

Yet these efforts only serve as a catalyst for more work on the part of activists, hackers and journalists, who try and find new ways to uncover and present the data, creating a cat-and-mouse game in which the more the government tries to hide, the more activists will try to reveal. As such, it’s the very lack of data at the national level – and ongoing attempts to limit what is already available – which, at least in part, creates the rich environment of innovation in Argentina (with more than 50 different initiatives at the last count). Looking ahead, the key question is: will the community be able to keep doing more innovation with less data? Or will a more thorough change be needed at the national government level? In the meantime, our experiences in Argentina suggested that, at least to a certain extent, when it comes to innovative uses of open government data, less can sometimes be more.


We will end with what Borges had to say about Buenos Aires

We will end with what Borges had to say about Buenos Aires



Community – the answer to innovation?

Comunidad. Community. This word kept popping up in all of our interviews. But what does community really mean?  What is the connection of communities to innovation?

Looking in the dictionary, one will find at least 10 different definitions to the word community. In the case of open government data, this definition might apply:

“The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.”

All of the people we spoke to have one common obvious interest: open data. However, during our research, we found that different stakeholders in this community usually also believe in social change, and see open government data as a tool, and not a mean, for that change. In all countries – Chile, Argentina and Uruguay – we found people who believe that they can make society better by contributing to it.

However, when it comes to Latin America, we can’t avoid the geographical context, which suggests that we apply another definition to the word community:

 “a particular area or place considered together with its inhabitants.”

We found that as a continent, Latin America has a unique community spirit, with important wider implications. Firstly, there is a close network of individuals and organisations who cooperate with one another on a daily basis. For example, there is a Whatsapp group which connects different members of the community and has members from multiple Latin America countries.

Secondly, unlike other regions in the world, the Latin American open data community predominantly speaks one language, Spanish (with the major exception of Brazil). This helps to create a more comfortable environment for collaboration in a native language, allowing ideas to spread quickly.

Thirdly, there are also personal connections. Most of our interviewees mentioned that they see other members in the network not only as their colleagues, but also as their friends. The impression that came out of the interviews is that this network is supportive and allows different members of the network not only to share ideas, but also to try and implement them by providing mentorship and sometimes even financial support.


Buenos Aires Open Data community in ODD ’15


What makes this community so close? Our research points to one major initiative: AbreLATAM. AbreLATAM (a word play of the word abrelatas in Spanish, a can-opener in English), is the regional un-conference of open data practitioners in Latin America. The idea started in Uruguay, where the only local open data NGO,  DATA Uruguay, decided that they needed a platform to share their experiences with other open data activists across the continent. Their idea was almost considered crazy at the time – to bring at least 100 people to Montevideo to discuss open government data. DATA Uruguay raised this matter with some funders, who were happy to give them a free hand to create the event, but also asked for an event that will involve governments. This led to the first regional open data conference that will be called Con Datos, that will follow this year’s AbreLATAM. AbreLATAM is now governed by a community of organizations, and was hosted for the second time in October 2014 in Mexico city by SocialTIC; Ciudadano Inteligente in Santiago will play host for the third edition in September


However, while discussing open data matters is important, interviewees from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay mentioned another aspect of AbreLATAM as their bonding time – parties. It is not surprising that “schmoozing” and sharing experiences outside of the main common interest help to create intimacy between participants and to bond together as a group. There is still no better connection than the face-to face-one.
Therefore, given this social emphasis, perhaps we should think about community in the sense offered by Rollo May, the famous American psychologist: “communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing.” This leads us to think, can we replicate the AbreLATAM and the ‘party effect’ in Europe, where there is no one mutual language and numerous different cultures? And if this intimacy were created, would it help to promote innovation in a cross-national way, strengthening civil society across the continent? It is, at least, an interesting experiment to consider.

An unexpected encounter in the Andes


Our Chilean journey came to an end four days ago, and we are now having a quick side-trip further south, in Argentina’s lake district. We didn’t think we’d have anything to report from this section of the trip, but sometimes travel surprises. We will summarise our week of research in Chile tomorrow, but today, we will tell you about an unexpected open data experience in San Martin de Los Andes.

San Martin de Los Andes is a small, beautiful town in the district of Neuquén, Argentina. It is well known for its stunning views of Lake Lacar, chocolate stores and ski resort. In the summer time people visit its beach or stay overnight after finishing the great tour of the seven lakes nearby. All in all, it’s a ‘tranquilo’ place, as locals say. Therefore, it was a perfect choice to relax after a busy 10 days in Chile. Open data and civil society groups are hundreds of miles away in the big bustling cities of the north-east. It is not much known for political activity, besides playing host to Che Guevara during his formative Motorcycle Diaries road trip.

Except that last night, the manager of our apartment complex, Pablo Saad, asked us casually about our upcoming work in Buenos Aires. “Open data research”, we answered, as we have done so many times before. What often follows in these situations is a rather blank expression, but Pablo’s reaction was surprising. “I love open data”, he said, with a spark in his eyes. “I did some analysis of open data policies in Argentina not a long time ago. It’s good to meet someone from outside of Argentina who is doing these kind of things!”

And so, with Mor’s broken Spanish, we had a spontaneous interview. We learned that Pablo is a member of a local organisation named ‘San Martin de Los Andes Como Vamos’ (‘How are we doing’ directly translated), which is part of ‘Red Ciudadana’ (‘civil network’), a network that stretches across six other cities, each of them much bigger than San Martin. The organisation promotes the strengthening of democratic processes and participation in the city, and its themes include open data and freedom of information. Pablo himself told us that he wished that Argentina would have as strong a transparency law as the Chilean one that we had heard so much about during our week in Santiago. He said that while the federal government has no such law, but he knows that other regional and municipal government do, even the municipality of San Martin. The problem, however, was not the bill, but the personnel – none of the employees in San Martin has the specific responsibility to execute such a policy. “We don’t have money for this, and money is important when it comes to training.”

The distance of San Martin de Los Andes creates another challenge as well. It is far from civil society centres in Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, Cordoba and Mendoza. “We have a website”, said Pablo, “but we don’t have the knowledge to create more than that. We need remote help when it comes civil hacking, like in creating local open data portals.” Networking, so it seems, still needs a face-to-face touch. Pablo hadn’t come across groups like Hack/Hackers  or Congreso Interactivo, not to mention other international groups. While his knowledge in the differences between different municipalities’ openness levels was very broad, he didn’t know any of the big networks aside from Red Ciudadana.

This leads us to think – how can you innovate in open data when you are on the periphery of networks, both geographically and politically? How is it that, in the Internet age, people are still not able to connect with peers in the centre, even though they have the technical infrastructure to do so? What does this mean for the international open data community, and what, if anything, can we do to make it better?

Maybe, we should be a bit like Che Guevara (cheesy we know, but follow our line of thought here for a moment). Maybe its time to ditch the laptop for a bit, pack a bag full of listening capacity and good faith, and start to explore these small communities who want and need innovation as much as everyone else, but don’t have the depth of resources and know-how to do so. Sometimes, it seems, a chance, face-to-face meeting in a local community can teach you so much more than just a Google search. We’ll have more to share from our Open Data Diaries very soon.


A protest sign in San Martin de Los Andes.

Chile hub

Hackathons – what are they good for?

One of the themes that came up from the interviews in Chile was the idea of a Hackathon. Luis Bajana was first exposed to open data during an open source hackathon; the Chilean government organises a national hackathon name AbreCL to promote the use of Open Data in applications and visualisations; Hanna Back Pyo organised hackathons in Santiago with civil society; FCI are one of the founders of Desarllo America Latina, a cross continent hackathon for Open Data; and Andres Bostamente organised an event in Concepion to encourage people to create a smarter city.  All of these interviews made clearer to me as a practitioner something that I already felt but never had enough evidence to prove until now: a hackathon is a tool, not a process.

Firstly, let’s rewind a bit. For those who are not familiar with the the term, ‘hackathon’ is a portmanteau of the words ‘hack’ and ‘marathon’. It is a short burst of hacking activity, usually based around the use of code, that can last anywhere between several hours and several days. Hackathons have become very popular in the last 5 years, and almost every big tech company has had one. It is also, for obvious reasons, very popular in the civic tech community.

From my experience, as both organiser and participant, hackathons can be divided into two types:

a. Freestyle: participants are given a problem / dataset / idea and are encouraged to solve it or to build something around the topic. To stimulate creativity, participants do not need to focus on a specific user, but can choose the problem that they think is the most important to solve. The open source community calls this the ‘itch’ – the thing that make you go and code stuff.

b. Task focus: participants are not creating a new application; rather, they are helping to improve current applications. For example, upgrading website of NGOs or adding features to Open Street Map.

I would like to focus here on the first type, freestyle hackathons. Can we really create a whole app in 48 hours? More importantly, can we really make it sustainable after the hackathon is over? The answer that came from most of the interviews was no. Hanna Back Pyo and Andres Bostamante emphasised to us that the dream of creating something in 48 hours in the open data space is possible, but not very practical. In addition, Andres pointed out that hackers can not solve any problem without actually consulting the people who experience the problem. For example, having a hackthon about public health with no one from the health industry will cause more alienation and will not get to the root of the problem. Rather, they pointed out that a hackathon should be a part of the process – it can ignite new ideas and partnerships, but it needs to be followed up by an incubating process which will allow the initiatives that started at the hackathon to fully bloom.

Chile hub

From the government side, we heard that ABREChile, the national open data Hackathon that is run by the Chilean government,  is a project that help to expose developers to open datasets. The government itself also see it as one tool out of many that can help to promote the use of data in government and through the citizens. Adding constant dialogue of the government with civil society even some local business while doing these types of events is also helping to promote new use in datasets.

Lastly, there is Desarrollo America Latina (DAL), an initiative that helps and promotes open data innovation through hackathons. The model here is different. This year DAL’s hackathon spread over three weekends. It focussed on peer learning from more experienced members to total newbies. It was, in a way, a month of creation across Latin America. Sharing experiences across the continent and bringing other people experience to the table helps to support members, to network, and in the long run, to foster this innovation for something bigger.

Ultimately, what our research on hackathons has demonstrated to far is that hackathons should be seen not as an end in themselves, but as a means to a bigger end: a sustainable, stimulating start to a longer, more established process of innovation.

Wheels down, and first impressions from Chile


We’re two days into our on-the-ground research here in Santiago, Chile, and we’ve already conducted three interviews with prominent figures in the open data community. Each of our interviewees represented a different sector of Chilean society, giving us a really useful cross-section of perspectives on the open data scene here.

Two days ago, we spoke to Luis Bajana, the founder of ‘Reciclia en linea’, a community recycling platform which relies on open government data to gauge its success. Luis gave us a fascinating insight into his background as a computer science student and his journey through the open source and open data communities, first in his native Ecuador and then Chile.

We also spoke to Hannah Back Pyo , who offered the perspective of someone working in the media industry, and how open data has allowed new forms of journalistic innovation. Finally, yesterday we spoke to representatives of Chile’s open government unit, who coordinate the release of open data by other government departments, and promote the use of this data by civil society groups.

We won’t go into the individual conversations just yet (not least because there were too many interesting things to try to summarise here!) but despite the diversity of our interviewees, several themes are already beginning to stick out.

One theme is legal. Chile’s landmark Transparency Law, enacted in 2009, is a lens through which open data is perceived in the country. The law contains both active and passive principles for different kinds of data: some information, such as government salaries, must be put online regularly, whereas the passive principle allows for freedom of information requests from citizens for other data. These legally enshrined rights and responsibilities have become something of an insurance policy for open data efforts, inspiring confidence that where data isn’t open, it can be made open upon request.

Yet while this law offers a strong foundation of transparency, ironically it may have made some aspects of open data innovation harder to achieve. The fact that most data is passively rather than actively available means that in practice, having to ask for data – a process which typically takes at least a month – can stymie rapid innovation, as Luis Bajana pointed out.  In addition, government will not open data if not asked to, and people will not ask for it because they don’t know they can get it. The cycle therefore, can last forever unless and until the general public become better informed. The directive of then-President Sebastian Pinera in 2011 mandated the publication of data sets may have had a similar effect, serving to draw the distinction between data that is merely available and data that is genuinely accessible. On this point, Helen Back  Pyo noted that much ‘data journalism’ effectively involves repackaging data that is already available – as infographics, for example – rather than more dense cross-data analysis.

Yet for all the impact of these large-scale, nationwide laws and directives, at the other end of the scale we have also been struck by the role of individuals – or ‘champions’, as we have tentatively titled them – who serve to facilitate and coordinate the efforts of the wider city, region or even country. We hope to provide case studies of many of these individuals over the coming weeks, but it’s important to note their importance at the outset.

Finally, a reflection on our central research questions: what drives people to get involved with creating impact from open data, and how can we measure this impact? Inevitably these are the hardest questions to answer and will take a far wider pool of perspectives than we’ve gathered so far. But on the question of motivation, we’re hearing a lot about the conduits into the open data community – whether this is through the open source or start-up communities, for example – and the specific tools which are used to get people engaged, for example hackathons.


Pac-man for innovation? We found this on the wall of the office for modernisation and digital government in Santiago.


On the measurement question, an interesting divide is developing between the economic and social dimensions of impact: we might tentatively speculate that government bodies may place more emphasis on the economic benefits of open data innovation, whereas activist communities emphasise the social effects, e.g. the number of users ultimately affected by innovation, as Luis suggested. And of course, the two questions are linked: the motivation for getting involved in the open data community in the first place likely affects perceptions of what counts as success.

To reiterate: these are early thoughts based on only a handful of interviews so far. But we hope that with more interviews in more contexts, Chilean and beyond – including a focus group this afternoon with the Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente (who have kindly hosted us so far) we hope to develop these preliminary thoughts into clearer insights and ultimately policy proposals.


The journey begins… but what are we actually looking for?

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” – Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis vs Ohio.

 For the sake of decency we will not reveal here what ‘it’ was that the Justice ‘knew when he saw’ – but this is quite a useful way to describe how we think about innovation today. We know innovation when we see it – but outside of specific examples, it’s surprisingly hard to define in the abstract.

Nonetheless, the Oxford English Dictionary has had a stab at it:
Innovate: to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas or products. – Oxford English Dictionary

Innovation also has a more economic sense, as outlined by prominent twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpeter, who offered five types of innovation:

  • introduction of a new product to the market
  • introduction of a new process to industry
  • introduction of a new market
  • development of new sources of supply for raw materials
  • changes in industrial organisation.

 In this Nesta-supported project ‘’, we are investigating innovative uses of open government data around the world, seeking to draw lessons from a range of different cultural contexts. Interestingly aspects of the data revolution that we are currently living through mesh with all five of Schumpeter’s types of innovation. Data is both a new product itself and involves new processes; markets in data are now fully-fledged (think adverts on Google); data is itself a new ‘raw material’ (frequently described as the ‘new oil’); and it has led to great changes in industrial organisation.

Yet the sources and innovative uses of data that we’ll be investigating on our project are more specific. When it is opened, government data is, by its nature, not privately held – there cannot therefore be a market for it. It’s also harder to think of government data as a ‘raw’ material that has been ‘discovered’: typically, government data is created more or less purposefully in the context of public services and administration – whether this is for collecting tax or improving roads.

 So, even if innovative is likely to remain something that you mainly ‘know when you see it’, in the context of open government data we can offer some outlines, at the outset, of what we take it to mean. Broadly, we feel it’s most constructive to think of open data innovation as a process – using open government data as a new resource, perhaps, but more importantly, doing something new with it. Whether this is an app that allow citizens to see federal budget transactions in Israel  or an app that helps citizens to pick a safe taxi on the streets of Mexico City , the reuse of data originally generated in a governmental context is, we feel, innovative by its very nature.

 Within these bounds, in our research we’re casting a wide net – talking to anyone and everyone using open government data, in each of the places we’re visiting – but also asking those people who they think we should talk to next. As such, our sampling approach is part purposive and part snowball-style: we’re trying to stay completely open-minded to new ideas, new approaches and new insights into the innovative potential that open government data offers societies around the world.

Our first stop on this project is in Santiago, Chile, and we will stay here until February 11. We will be tweeting and blogging over the course of our project, so be sure to follow along – Find us at @morchickit and @joshcowls.