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.

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.