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Mobilize! — Assembling an Open Data Community

James Marchant|

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Hello everyone! If you haven’t been following our blog, we recently organized the Open & Shut Conference, where we brought together a group of experts and open data practitioners to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by open data in closed societies.

This article – the second in a series of posts collecting our thoughts from the conference – is a summary of some of the insights from our contributors, who articulated some best practices and sound strategies for nurturing new open data communities.

Defining Our Terms

First off, we recognized that it was important to define clearly what we’re talking about: are we specifically talking about ‘communities’ or do we actually mean networks? If we do really want to build open data communities, then it’s essential to have a clear idea of exactly what it is we’re trying to assemble.

Communities are distinct from networks. By ‘networks’, we typically mean larger groups of people that are connected in largely transactional relationships. These relationships are grounded in mutual self-interest, meaning that – unlike communities, which are cemented in a set of shared values or objectives – networks are typically value-neutral.

Communities, meanwhile, lend themselves to more organic forms of collaboration and exchange, being bound by sets of shared guiding principles that can motivate members to the exchange of ideas, and to action. In this way, they are more than just networks united by value systems, but rather constitute powerful vehicles for collective action.

Ongoing engagement is core to a community’s success. Communities are most effectively brought together when trying to address challenges, and require some level of sustained contribution from members (unlike networks, where passivity has few negative consequences). Because these ongoing contributions need to be sparked and guided, we agreed that communities ultimately end up quite structured – if not formally, then at least socially.

There will always be thought leaders in communities, and there will always be those who are less shy about bringing their projects to the community to seek collaborations. In the same way, there will always be those who are more passive participants. This isn’t a problem – we said that an 80/20 split of ‘lurkers’ to ‘leaders’ is enough to keep a community working.

But the question remained: how do we bring all these people together in the first place?

So… where do communities come from?

Getting people in the same room is important for getting those important conversations started – that was one of the main purposes of the Open & Shut Conference, after all! But we all acknowledged that constant communication and common action was key to sustaining the momentum that builds out of conferences like ours, necessitating some form of online engagement.

Of course every conference these days seems to end with a mailing list, a Slack channel, a Twitter link, or some other hook to ‘keep the conversation going’. But how often does this really come to anything?

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We thought it one of the common barriers to this happening is that potential members don’t get a sense of how they can contribute to the community, or how the community is planning to serve them. Therefore, it’s crucial to organize communities around a clearly defined set of expectations. There’s an onus on the community coordinators to explain what communities can offer potential members, and to outline ways that members might be expected to give back.

The Community Roundtable’s Community Maturity Model was also flagged up as a useful resource that can help us think about the structured phases of community development – examining their development and leadership strategies, culture, governance mechanisms, and content production processes.

The Community Roundtable’s Community Maturity Model

We’re very much in the first stages of community-building here with Open & Shut, but we’re trying to work to a point where our community members are contributing posts and ideas to this blog (and yes, that includes you!). But we’re under no illusions that it’s easy to reach that point.

What are the challenges?

Participants all agreed that open data communities too often exist in silos. It is hard to break into different spaces – be it across regions or sector. Let’s consider the use of open data for the purposes of exposing anti-corruption as one example: one incredibly complex issue that touches on a whole range of technical datasets, which varies across national contexts, and involves countless stakeholders.

On a day-to-day basis, for example, there’s no need for anti-corruption open data practitioners in Colombia to share experiences with people doing the same thing in Indonesia. Instead, they’re engaging on a day-to-day basis with their own civil society, the judiciary, and other local and national government stakeholders. So one of the challenges we’re aggressively trying to tackle is to shatter these silos and bring open data practitioners together from all sorts of typically closed contexts.

To ensure that communities feel broad-based and consensual, community leaders must go out and seek the participation of otherwise marginal, or isolated voices. Sometimes, active organisations will need to be proactive in ‘recruiting’ community members. After all, not all organisations are great at organically engaging with others, yet still have experiences and skills to share, and would benefit from being pulled into the conversation.

So what’s worked well elsewhere?

One successful model for building an active community is to empower participants with a useful platform that addresses their needs. A great example of a platform-rooted community is the Humanitarian Data Exchange, which equips users with the tools and practices to share humanitarian data. It has managed to bring together several communities together across countries like Nepal, Colombia and Kenya in a remarkably short period of time.

Another example at our table was Mozilla, which is a very effective example of a successful open source community. It unites a community around shared values of openness, as well as a range of tools and detailed best practices for community members, and is at its heart a diverse and inclusive gathering of people around shared values.

So what are the takeaways? What makes for an effective open data community?

There are no hard-and-fast rules to community building. Sometimes a top-down approach is appropriate (particularly early in the community-building process!), while at other times grassroots effort should be enough to sustain them.  

So although we came out of the conference lacking in revolutionary solutions, there are two important lessons we’d like to share.

First off, we all agreed that it’s important to forge a sense of collective ownership of knowledge and outputs in effective communities. If you establish a set of common principles early on – making sure community members understand what they stand to gain, and what they could be able to contribute as members – you have sown the seeds of an open data community that could achieve its common goals.

Secondly, and rather simply – successful communities require an investment of time, resources, and energy in order to create spaces for discussion and engagement. No amount of funding can be a proxy for that (although of course it can help!). Join together around a set of clear values, start talking, and then go and do stuff together!

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