How to promote open data in government through peer learning

By Anna Scott 06 October 2015

Mobile technology and open data are used in Tanzania to map and monitor sources of clean drinking water. Open data's potential for improved policymaking, and social, economic and environmental benefits are becoming clearer across sectors globally. Photo by: mWater / DIVatUSAID / CC BY-NC-ND

Forging culture change can be lonely work. Working alone, or in a small team, your task is to encourage your boss, your colleagues or your community to invest in something new. Something they might not understand. Something that might be very different from what they’re used to.

This is especially true for those in governments around the world tasked with promoting open data, data that anyone can access, use and share. “Open data leaders often need to address very real fears from their colleagues and bosses,” said Emma Truswell, services business manager at the Open Data Institute. “These include national security, privacy concerns, the risk of embarrassment to the administration, and concerns about the quality of data.”

But they take these risks for good reason. Open data’s potential for improved policymaking, and social, economic and environmental benefits are becoming clearer to businesses, civil society and governments around the world.

To realize these benefits, open data leaders must convince their peers that embracing open data and becoming open by default is a good idea. Not only that, but they need to build the skills and resources to make it happen. Not an easy task, especially where there are limited resources and institutional resistance to the idea of publishing data openly that used to be closed.

In the face of these challenges, where can these change-makers look to for the best guidance and support? Each other, it turns out. Open data leaders from around the world have been meeting to share their experiences, give each other advice and reflect on how to bring about change at an Open Data Leaders Network, held by the ODI.

“We share success stories, values, ideas and talk about challenges,” said Nkechi Okwuone, a member of the Open Data Leaders Network and Open Data Manager at the Nigerian government’s Edo State Open Data Portal.

The network crucially helps open data leaders bond over their mutual challenge of promoting and implementing a new policy area. Even the longest-running open data programs like United States-based and United Kingdom-based are little more than five years old.

“We don’t have a standard road map or something that’s been done before [that] we’re trying to adopt,” Okwuone added. “We’re basically treading [new] ground … and that’s a pretty difficult one.”  

There are no tried-and-tested change models that open data leaders can adopt. But given the lessons learned within global development and related movements calling for change, it could be a mistake to try to create them.

With the Open Data Leaders Network, the ODI is exploring how culture change within government can support and sustain open data in the long-term. Along with guidance built on interviews and literature reviews in organizational change management, the network unites open data leaders around the world tasked with implementing their own open data initiatives in government. Each cohort is made up of around seven leaders, who spend a week in workshops, sharing their experiences, working on solutions to problems and meeting local entrepreneurs and consultancies.

The peer-to-peer learning model means that advice and experience can be shared in context: horizontally rather than top-down. This is a new methodology, which the ODI is testing and evaluating. It is a theory of change based on finding leaders who understand their context, connecting them with peers who have achieved similar things in different contexts and supporting them to find ways to drive reform from within.

The idea is to inspire leaders to develop responses to the challenges of implementing change in their own contexts, while equipping them with new knowledge and providing space to critically reflect on their own practice. The leaders come away not with “best practice,” but with tools, inspiration and a global network of colleagues that will support and encourage each other once they return to their offices. The first cohort, which met in Feb. 2015, are still using their WhatsApp group to stay in touch and share experiences.

“Each of the seven who attended has come away with six new friends,” said Paul Stone, New Zealand’s Open Government Data program leader and member of ODLN’s second cohort. “Friends who share the same passion about open data, and who are striving to impact the culture of the governments we work for.”

“The diversity of where we, as open data leaders, had come from — before entering the open data world — also had a part to play … Our different ways of approaching problems helped us to come up with useful options for solutions. We’ll be working on a couple of those solutions together going forward from our four corners of the globe, so watch this space.”

Peer learning enables global development leaders — in open data particularly — to see each other’s successes and mistakes. If there are enough of them, they have a variety of experiences to draw on, and can escape “top-down” relationships with funders, donors or other global development agencies, which are often complicated in terms of their funding agreements.

It is time more change movements recognized the potential for peer-to-peer learning, and spent more of their efforts facilitating it, than shoehorning traditional models into unfit contexts.

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

About the author

Anna Scott

Anna Scott is a journalist and editor specializing in human rights, open data and global development. She is writer/editor at the Open Data Institute and was previously a journalist at the Guardian, where she wrote and commissioned pieces on broad global development-related issues, from international aid transparency to global health. Anna also helped set up the Europe office at the Center for Global Development, where she handled policy outreach and produced the podcast Development Drums.

Join the Discussion