BC Open Data Summit Report

I guess I shouldn’t be disappointed; I’m not sure why I was expecting anything different, but it was a conference. There were a few speakers that stood out for me, but quite a number that didn’t. I had hoped to find a field more closely connected to its local environment and communities; instead I found one that seems to suffer many of the same problems as “open education” – being way too supply-side driven, with many of the people sharing the data not even sure they want to. This is captured in the tagline of the summit – “Liberate the Data.” Like so many efforts before it, that inadvertently turns what should have been means (open data) into an end in and of itself. Add to this the familiar question of “engagement,” as if this was a problem to solve after you’ve built whatever it is “they” are to come to.

I’m probably being harsh; it is still early days, there are lots of good people involved, and lots of good intentions (though you know what they ay about those…) Still, it feels like so much giving people fish and not fishing lessons. Just like an open ed conference bereft of learners, an open data conference with no citizens seems…lacking.

But enough harping on what didn’t work. There were some pieces that did for me. I really liked the use of the term “civic infrastructure” by the impressive Philip Ashlock – I don’t think it has to be an either/or between providing data and providing platforms, but approaches that look at how governments can provide trusted platforms for citizens to accomplish what *they want to do* seem to bake the whole “adoption” issue right into the solution from the start.

I very much appreciated Luke Closs‘ lightning talk (which I’d have voted to be a 30 minute slot) on open data business models. Citing the
Business Model Canvas” as inspiration, Lucas described 4 possible models for people trying to startup open data projects:

  • Citizen Funded: in which users pay for an app or subscriptions, or it is ad supported.
  • City Funded: in which you are developing something to then sell to municipalities
  • Infrastructure Service: in which you are marketing to developers, make it easy for hackers to use in their town
  • Public Open Source Service: in which you try to crowdfund the ongoing operations (e.g. ISP costs) of a service that otherwise uses open source software and volunteers

I appreciated this as I really need to think harder about how some of my citizen-oriented projects can thrive, ad the “Business Model Canvas” seems to provide a useful, lightweight way to think through the problem.

I also need to acknowledge the organizers of the BC Open Data Summit for providing the BEST CONFERENCE LUNCH EVAR, bento boxes! Genius idea – I will have to ask the organizers about the cost (which I expect wasn’t cheap) but it’s a great idea for a portable, elegant lunch solution.

Finally, Peter Forde‘s talk titled “People are Dying to get the Data” really struck a chord, both for invoking the names of Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz, but also for the mixture of serious advice and playful suggestions on how to make open data more real for people. His urging to solve “real” problems, and to shun teh shiny of digital dashboards and analytics for the power of narrative really struck a chord for me, as they are both things I need reminding of. Plus my geeky side liked it for the mention of a couple of nifty gadgets – Pebble, a bluetooth watch that allows you to display notifications and data from your phone while it’s in your pocket, and NinjaBlocks a simple plug and play platform to build digital apps that control real world appliances and devices. Sure, a bit of a stretch at an open data conference, but fun!

Ultimately, my disappoints with the event were really disappointments in my own performance; I really didn’t make any new connections and the productive hallway conversation I did have was with one of the few people I already knew at the event. Still, it brought to mind lessons learned numerous times at Northern Voice and Open Ed, that “open” isn’t the same as “inviting,” and that if organizers really do want to grow a movement, real care has to be paid to how we bring newcomers into the fold.

What this slow learner learned at Northern Voice – The 2008 Edition

I am not certain enough time has passed yet to have fully digested the last few days (heck I haven’t even left Vancouver and still get one more culinary delight before I go in the form of Dim Sum with the crew). (Sheesh this post has taken a while to write and it is still rushed and not very clear…) This year was different than last; the learning was more in the form of themes that emerged from numerous conversations rather than thunderous emotional epiphany. Anyways, here it goes, what (I hope) I learned this year at Northern Voice:

The Importance of Stories and Narrative

I am a former English major. So I will forgive you if you ignore me from here on out as a perennial dimwit when I tell you that it took me this long to ‘get’ how crucial narrative and storytelling are to everything we are doing, be it learning online, connecting, weaving one’s online presence, blogging… From cogdog‘s masterful 50 Ways performance, to Nancy White’s drawing party, from seeing the WordPress hotshots demonstrate the myriad ways it can be used to tell different stories, to a comment from Keira that “living online is like being in a movie,” to my own little story of blog love that dared speak its name, at each step there seemed to be another story, or someone urging me to re-approach all my convoluted configurations through the simpler (and as some convincingly argued, innate) frame of “storytelling.” Like I said, slow learner.

People deserve simple tools that give them control and choice

Another important theme that emerged for me is that it’s not the specific tool itself that is critical but instead the motivation to use the tool, the problem that is trying to be solved, the itch scratched, that largely determines success or failure. Human instrumentality is such that we will find a way to connect, to work, to change, even if it means using smoke signals or rocks to do the trick.
Sure, ‘bad’ tools get in the way of motivated people, and ‘good’ tools help them work even better. But when people are motivated to connect, to collaborate, to communicate, to learn, they will find a way, make the tools at hand bend to their purpose.

Our job, then, as tool makers is in part to make tools that they can bend to their needs, that are useful because of the uses they can be put to and not only because of the intentions of their designer. Twitter is a great example of this that came up time and again. The many disguises that WordPress can wear another.

But place this alongside Brian‘s usability demonstration of checking discussion threads in WebCT (25 clicks that told a 1000 words), that usability, simpleness, is not a simply a “nice to have.” I wish we had video of it. Instead I would just urge all campus decision makers be forced to monitor a discussion thread in a CMS, like their instructors have to do, for a few weeks. I think we could get the revolution started overnight this way.

The welcoming heart

Now that I think of it, I guess there is some commonality with the revelations of last year. Last year I had my heart opened to the impactful, authentic ways in which people were using blogs, in strong contrast to the often intellectual exercise they can be for me. This year it was my assumptions on the social/network skills and fluency that I require people to bring to participate in the form of connected, networked learning and community that were challenged and hopefully opened my heart a bit more.

It happened a few times, but the most notable was during the “Blogging is Dead – Long Live Bloggers” when (I will blame it on my somewhat addled Saturday morning state) I made some obnoxious assertions about online identity that were really exclusionary. I didn’t mean them that way, but they were.

Yet as the Reverend Jim helped remind me later that day “People call me on my bullshit…and I like it.” I got a bit defensive in the session when it was called to my attention, but because of one of the people doing the calling (and her inimitable, gentle way of doing so), I tried to hear past my defensiveness. And I came to see that while one can be ‘open’ and available on the web with one’s writing & one’s work, that is different than being open and having a ‘welcoming heart.’ That is, a (I’m struggling for a word here – stance? posture? feeling? revealing?) well, an “open heart” that welcomes those you come across, who come across you, instead of an egoful one always needing to be regarded. I don’t think I am expressing this well. Maybe that simply belies that I have not learnt it well yet. Like I said, slow learner.

There’s more. So much more. But I can’t get it out of me right now. (Plus I’m off for a hike with the cogdog, so that struggle will have to wait). But like others, I did not come away from NV unchallenged or (hopefully) unchanged. – SWL