Hacking the hack: routes to community engagement with open data

Open data engagement beyond the hack day

Bristol City Council has an open data platform, and a team to work on release and engagement. They also have a mobility API for transport data. How, though, to get more people to use this lovely open data?

The already run hacks – they have one coming up on Saturday 21st May 2016. They also run round tables with community groups. They’re running a session with the University of West of England journalism course pairing journalists with coders to see what they can do. But they need more than hacks – they’re limited to people with a particular technical skill set.

The problem with “hack”

The word “hack” is problematic – it puts some people off, others assume it’s about journalists. Use the word “workshop” or “jam” – and more people turn up. And certainly more people who aren’t middle-aged white males.

There was a dragons den panel at University of Southhampton. The students came up with app ideas and business cases – and even prototypes. You could set some challenges – maybe thematically – and offer mentoring and support. Geovation offers a small cash prize – but the support offered is the main reward. Make the intitaive centred around a particular problem.

The citizen sensing project has worked in the same way – focusing on using sensors with damp, a real problem people care about.

Beyond the weekend

These are all very in-depth projects. Is there anything you can do with a Saturday? Well, you could do a series of things rather than a one-off. Smaller events, more frequently seems to be the message.

You need to find different ways of telling the story of open data. There are some good examples of artists reimagining data in creative ways that are more engaging rather than just “this is the most dangerous junction in Bristol”.

Could you link with other events – like a photowalk? Could data support that? Could it be made available to attendees at that event? Can you tap into existing energies? Make a real thing of the “data set of the month” tied into other events. The 10k run going on outside is full of data…

Could you make the hacks more general? Rather than just getting the developers, you might get people in with ideas they’re championing or problems they want solved.

Data in its place

Or – strip it back. People are quite happy to join clubs for a few hours in the evening – for 8 weeks in a row. There’s a danger of skewing everything towards those who can make weekends. How about a data walk: go to a place in Bristol, and ask people what they want to know about that area. And then you link that to the data that you have – about buildings or roads or anything they’re in interested in. It’d be fun – and not involve spending all Saturday in a dark room…

You always need people who can bring a citizen view of things involved. How can you incubate “little startups” with the people who have the time and the problems that need solving? That’s what Geovation has tried to do in London.

There’s a strong connection between data and place making. Identifying unowned spaces from land ownership triggers all sorts of possibility – for guerrilla gardening or other community efforts. For example: the 596 Acres project in New York.

Have you considered an unconference? Apparently they’re quite good…? 😉

Partnerships with people

How about targeting journalists – those who want to understand data? Or musicians and artists. Or get a Hacks/Hackers Bristol up and going?

There are lots of organisations that it might be worth working with:

How about Bristol Girl Geeks – they seem like an obvious link for getting more women involved. And yes, things are already in progress there.

Dive into LinkedIn at groups that have already formed – and approach them with relevant data and an idea for an event.

Activist achievers

If you start with activists, who have a passion for something that needs fixed, and the open data can fix that, they you have a story you can tell. Talk to local media, hyperlocals and blogs. Find other people with a problem, and fix it. That’s another story that will spread. Maybe avoid the word “activists”. It has…connotations.

The key point:

Unless people have a passion for something, they just don’t have the time to get involved.

During Bristol Refugee Week there will be a hack – but they’re struggling with the word “hack” again. It will be really interesting.

Could you use open data to inform the debates important to the Joint Local Access Forum?

The key question is:

How do you marry people with a passion with open data together with people who are passionate about a problem?

The problem is we’re all interested in open data. Imagine an event for flour enthusiasts. That’s limited. But a make and bake day, which uses flour? Much more interesting.

Don’t just have an event and stop. Revisit and iterate. Keep it going. Look at the open data community – they meet and build platforms which enable other people to do things. It keeps going.

Use a council venue at a weekend. Why not?

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