Working for an organisation that promotes open data from both private and public sector institutions, I regularly find myself asking the same question: Is all this data even being used?
To begin with, how do I even measure this? OpenUp has played a pioneering role in improving access to information in South Africa.
As a Project Manager of some of the biggest open data projects in our organisation and potentially our country and continent it’s what I would like to believe.
Our open data ‘big hitters’
The two big projects that sprung to mind are Municipal Money and Vulekamali. But before I get into explaining them, we have an organisational “flagship” project which often resonates with our name, as OpenUp, in the civic tech community. We often hear from people we engage with; “Oh yes, the organisation which developed Wazimap.” All three platforms make some form of data more accessible to citizens, locally, nationally, and because it's web based, internationally as well.
While Municipal Money and Vulekamali, championed by South Africa’s National Treasury, focus on improving access to government budget data, Wazimap takes a different approach, by looking at demographic data like the STATSSA census and community surveys. At times I don't personally follow, “why is it important to have access to this data” outside of the context of working on the project. Do people ever wake up and say “let me search the internet for data on X, because I really need to know.”
The Disappearing act of Data
We found the answer recently through an unexpected situation. My experience having previously worked in government as an Assistant Director, led me to think that in some directorates, chief directorates, departments, and ministries, data was so sketchy and unreliable that officials often saw new data as just another thing to make sense of. For me, more data meant creating unnecessary extra work, in that it required me collecting data from various sources in my department, sometimes even being the data custodian and having to keep the data up to date. I didn’t like data, however, I did know the importance of it because decisions were being made with this data by heads of department, senior managers, which had an impact on our Private Healthcare System (I can’t divulge too much about my previous experience, lol).
Coming back to the question, is data a superpower or super pain (in the ass), the jury is out on this. To data specialists, any data is better than no data, while to the average person, we just want to understand, “what does that number mean to me?” my thoughts are, the superpower lies between these two (specialists and average joe), in that OpenUp tries to bridge the gap between raw data and human digestible data stories and visualisation. The power is in the translation from raw data to something understandable and relatable by a range of users with a range of data skills.
I lost track of how I realised there were people out there actually needing these open data platforms. Sometimes we underestimate the need for our tools (open data platforms) until people can’t access them. Recently Vulekamali had been down, due to matters outside of OpenUp’s control. In the past we have had a few situations like this, where a site was down for a few hours, sometimes down for a day, but this wasn't really noticed by anyone, partly due to the low usage of open data sites. Yes, I said it! This case has proven very different. During the month of December 2021 until the present we have received numerous enquiries from users asking when the national budget data portal will be back up and running. This feedback has been received not only from data users locally, but internationally as well. We even received an enquiry from a well-known international financial institution asking when Vulekamali would be active again.
Do we have a superpower?
This experience has leant me to think about how OpenUp designs and implements projects of this nature, always starting with the potential user in mind. Of course to some, there will be no interest in a data portal, but to others it's the gummy berry juice to their work that has them bouncing off the walls achieving their goals. There are some super heroes out there fully dependent on access to data, in their areas of expertise, able to change the world, one dataset at a time. Our superpower as an organisation, isn't to “assume” these data needs, but to engage with users to find out these needs. Their superpower is to use it optimally in their capacity.