Open on principle or Open on demand: Who really needs open data and transparency?

I really enjoyed day one of the Code for America Summit. Many of the topics resonated with me, and as host/emcee David Eaves said, the community and aura “felt like home.” I guess this is more evidence that the civic tech space is a better fit for me than the ed tech space, per se. Ironically, one of the things that attracts me to civic media- projects around open data and transparency that are just plain “cool” – is also seen as a huge red flag in the space.

Specifically, many of us drawn to civic media believe in concepts of “open” and “transparent” on principle. Data should be shared and accessible. Good things happen when information is public. These are principles I instinctively believe in, without regard for how exactly the open and transparent and accessible information will be used.

[image]I was challenged today, as I have been in the past, to think one step beyond “what” and “why,” to the ever-important “for whom” and “how.” When we are passionate about a new idea or new product, it is easy to describe what we’re passionate about and why we’re passionate about it. But it is not always easy to describe for whom it will be useful and how they will use it.

For example, take my ambitious global mapping project for education. The fact that this tool should exist is something I feel strongly about. But my feeling comes from a principle (perhaps”should” statements are a giveaway). It’s easy for me to talk about why this project is compelling, but more difficult to answer the question of demand. However, I should know better, if not for common sense, then for the following 3 experiences:

  • One. Before business school, I worked at USAID, the US government’s foreign aid agency. As anyone who’s worked in international development can tell you, there are many projects that come about because someone thought they sounded like a good idea while sitting in an office. What unfortunately happens is these projects get funded before a needs assessment takes place, without actually being tested in the field, and with no local community input. These projects end up being a waste of (taxpayer) money with little or no impact on local communities. That’s why it’s exciting to see a trend right now where development projects are really focused on the end user: initiatives that are targeted around problems facing local communities.
  • Two. I read the entrepreneurship bible and I drank the MIT Kool-aid. Not only did my previous startup come out of MIT’s foundational entrepreneurship class, but I also TA-ed the class for two semesters after that. So I know by heart the first steps of building a successful startup- they can be summed up in 3 words: Know. Your. Customer. As my mentor Bill Aulet likes to say, a customer is the number one requirement for success (actually, he would say a paying customer). This is especially relevant for projects and startups coming out of MIT, many of which are based on a “technology push” rather than a “market pull.” There is so much groundbreaking and fun research happening on campus, and many students and professors want to commercialize products before really understanding their target market. (This does not detract from the fact that if all active MIT-founded companies became a nation, it would be the 17th largest economy in the world.)
  • Three. This past spring I took a course at the MIT Media Lab with the great Ethan Zuckerman, who directs the Center for Civic Media. In his course, I started piloting projects as a part of my vision for edversation. The consistent feedback I received from Ethan and my classmates was: Who is this for? How will they use it? My response of “I’m not sure- it’s just cool!” didn’t cut it. What was particularly interesting was the fact that most of my classmates were journalists (the class was a news media class that attracted many Nieman fellows). I now think anyone who wants to embark on a new venture should find a journalist friend. Journalists have an intense focus on the who and why. They kept asking me, “What is the story here?” That is such an interesting way of looking at new projects- and a clear way to focus on demand rather than on principle.

Along these lines, what resonated with me most throughout the conference today was the theme of focusing on serving a need in the community. For example, there are myriad projects that Code for America fellows work on, yet they are all based on addressing real gaps between municipal governments and their constituents, particularly services for underserved communities. For example, one of my Berkeley classmates worked on this project to help people check their food stamp balances via text message. This ethos of bridging a gap permeates the culture of effective civic media work.

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I was struck by today’s keynote speaker, Tom Loosemore. Last year’s keynote speaker was Mike Bracken, and everyone loved him and him team so much that for this year’s keynote they brought in Mike’s colleague, Tom. Mike and Tom are from the UK where they work on the Government Digital Service, building awesome tools to allow citizens to access government services in a central location. I guess many US civic technologists idolize the work that has been done in the UK- it is certainly a great example of how far we can go. One of the most memorable parts of Tom’s speech was when he laid out the dream: a government webpage where someone could enter their name and click “Just sort it all out for me.” It was so simple and elegant when he laid the vision out like that- that is the ultimate goal that civic media projects strive for, especially those focused on making government services more easily accessible. Tom is also responsible for the design principles of the UK’s Government Digital Service- the very first one is “start with needs.”

One of the speakers who echoed this point was panelist Stephanie Hannon, Director of Product Management at Google. Stephanie pushed the audience to let “open” be a means rather than an end. She says data must not just be open but must also be structured, licensed, and reusable. She implored the audience to “start with the people you want to serve, pick the problems you want to solve- think beyond ‘open’.” This sentiment was echoed by other panelists, such as Oliver Wise from New Orleans and Vasudha Reddy from New York City, who asked for more civic tech solutions that they can apply to their cities.

These speakers reinspired me to consider the audience I am targeting with edversation, and helped me flash back to other lessons I have learned about understanding the customer and choosing the story I want to tell. For me, this means first and foremost choosing a use case to focus on as I build an education data tool. It can be teachers building lesson plans, parents picking a school for their kids, donors choosing a school to give money to, or researchers using comparative education statistics. These are the types of decisions I must make in order to be open and transparent- not just on principle but on demand.

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