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Open & Shut – Exploring the Opportunities of Open Data in Closed Societies

James Marchant|

On September 21, Small Media and Iran Open Data hosted the first ever Open & Shut Conference in London, looking to delve into the challenges and opportunities offered by the open data movement in closed societies around the world.

Bringing together open data practitioners, freedom of information advocates, and academics, the Open & Shut Conference was a golden opportunity for open data champions to exchange experiences and methods of working in closed societies.

In this post we’ll talk a bit about some of the key takeaways from Open & Shut, and where we’d like to take the community in the coming months. If you’d like to catch up with the sessions from Open & Shut, everything’s available over at the Open & Shut YouTube channel.

The Starting Point – Iran Open Data

But first, a little context. Iran Open Data is a Small Media initiative that works to support transparency and government openness in Iran – one of the most politically closed societies in the world. Despite the country being ranked 67th on Open Knowledge International’s 2016 Global Open Data Index, the Small Media team nonetheless saw that some opportunities existed to wrench Iranian government data into the public sphere.

Although Iran has a pretty abysmal track record of publishing data in open and accessible formats, it does publish large volumes of data. Buried deep on government websites, locked behind webforms, or engraved in .pdfs, the data’s there. It just needs to be liberated.

That’s where the Iran Open Data team comes in, painstakingly sifting through Iranian government data, cleaning it, and making it machine-readable, accessible, and open. We do this legwork so that researchers, civil society, and journalists can do their jobs properly, and hold Iranian policymakers to account.

But Iran is a very specific case, and one fairly insulated from the wider open data movement in which so many battles over transparency have already been fought, and in many cases won.

What we felt we needed was to build a community of practitioners doing open data work in those countries languishing towards the bottom of the Global Open Data Index. What methodologies and practices are most effective for exposing these (sometimes) politically closed and secretive states to a little sunlight?

Building a Community – Open & Shut

There was a need to create a space for open data practitioners from closed societies, so we set about building it. In August 2017, the Open & Shut blog was launched to showcase some of the most inspiring open data projects emerging from closed societies, and to give open data practitioners a space to talk about their practices, their achievements, and the challenges they’ve had to overcome in challenging environments.

So far, we’ve looked at the emerging open data space in Iran, the role played by open crowdsourced data in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepalese earthquake, and the work of anti-corruption data journalists at Panama’s Nueva Nación, among other stories. In each of these cases, activists have had to work hard to win over government officials and ensure some sort of buy-in into their projects, or else to work around hostile political forces altogether.

The Open & Shut blog provides a valuable space for knowledge-sharing online, but we recognised the importance of bringing the community together in a physical space to start a conversation about how to develop practical support for open data initiatives in closed societies worldwide.

Attended by more than 40 participants from around the world – from Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and East Asia – the Open & Shut Conference was a valuable opportunity to explore questions around the common and divergent challenges faced by open data practitioners in closed societies.

If you missed out on the chance to attend, don’t worry! We’ve recorded the sessions and have made them available on the Open & Shut YouTube channel.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be sharing a few more blog posts around some of the central themes we explored during the conference:

  • Data Ethics in Closed Societies
  • Building Open Data Communities
  • Measuring the Impact of Open Data in Closed Societies
  • Adopting Technology to Support Open Data

We’ll be back at the OGP soon to share some of our insights on these topics. In the meantime, if you’d like to watch the sessions from the Open & Shut Conference you can find them on the Open & Shut YouTube channel.

Also, as a final note, if you’re an open data practitioner, data journalist, or open data advocate working in closed or partially closed societies, we’d love to collaborate with you. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us on Twitter @small_media, or via email at contact@smallmedia.org.uk.

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