Monthly Archives: February 2011

Sprinkled stats and the search for data…

[Summary: Data-driven vs. data guided change-making. Reposted from the new Making a Difference With Data website]

I woke up to a tweet this morning from @YoungAdvisors pointing me to their new ‘Big Book of Stats’ and ‘What’s the Real Cost of Cutting’ resources – bringing together statistics from across the youth sector in a quick-to-skim PDF.

I got in touch with Gary Buxton, Young Advisors Chief Exec to ask a few questions about the stats:

Q: What inspired your to collect the figures you have gathered?
When times are tough its even more important to share and collaborate.  Our social goals are about creating good opportunities for young people. Having charities, social enterprises and young people all replicating work is distracting and reduces everyone’s ability to deliver. If we all shared a little bit more, we’d all be greater than the sum of our parts.

Q: How easy was it to find the data and numbers you needed?
Both pieces were pretty difficult to pull together.  It became a bit of an evening hobby! Stats came from old NYA policy briefings, NCVYS, Twitter, Facebook, Private Consultancy Companies, New Economics Foundation, Prince’s Trust and government sites etc etc.  I still really want how much it costs when a young person is excluded from school!

Q: How are you now planning to use these figures?
We use the stats for writing bids and helping the young people we work with write bids and presentations that are well informed and referenced.  Knowing your data helps young people make reasoned and compelling solutions to community problems.  We wanted to open the data to others who might find it helpful so everyone can work smart and not hard, keep delivering great work, but most of all, make a good case to decision makers, councillors and MPs about how important investing in young people is and the risk of pulling funding from services that young people regard as important.

As the ‘Sprinkled Statistics’ recipe over in the Open Data Cook Book suggests, sometimes using open data is as simple as backing up an argument with the numbers – with no need for fancy visualisation or mash-ups. Resources like Young Advisors Big Book of Stats can make that easier for other groups.

But, as Gary notes, even just collecting the statistics you need from government reports, let alone getting access to raw data to slice and explore it in different ways, can be tricky. And as Paul Clarke questions in a blog post today, is getting the data always the most important part of campaigning for a change? Whilst we might imagine there are clear ‘facts’ about the cost of school exclusions, or patient to nurse ratios, these statistics do not come solely from direct measurement, but are based on calculations from different datasets, and, importantly, rest upon definitions (what is an exclusion; what counts as a direct or indirect cost of exclusion; do you count all the time a nurse is on the ward, or only the time they are available for patient care (not paperwork). As Paul puts it:

…does the cause need the data? Does the search for data delay the obvious? Could the open data revolution sometimes obfuscate more than enlighten? While we’re arguing over reporting standards, boundary definitions and data feeds, real people are hurting and starving.

So where does this leave us? Having access to statistics, data and figures at a local level can certainly help strengthen those advocating for change. And knowing the numbers can inform bids, proposals and smarter working. But perhaps key here is to see campaigning for change as ‘data guided’ and ‘data backed’ rather than ‘data-driven’.

Making a difference with data means knowing how to use it as a tool, but one amongst many in the change-makers toolbox.

Open data quick links: cook books; aid data; campaign camps; MADwData

[Summary: A couple of quick open data links]

The Open Data Cook Book now has a new look and a few more recipes – providing step by step instructions for working with open data. It’s also now Wikified – so anyone can sign-up to edit and add recipes. So, if you’ve got ideas for how people can use open data in creative ways – head over and add some recipes.

On the topic of Making a Difference With Data the new MADwData website is packed full of links and analysis on open data to support change at a local level, particularly organised around different sectors: health, local authorities, housing, transport, crime & education.  I’m editing the education section, and have been exploring how open the EduBase dataset really is. Take a look though at the fantastic content from the other editors – all giving some great overviews of the state of data for change in different contexts.

In the MADwData forum Vicky Sargent has been asking about the use of data in library closure campaigns. I’ve been in touch with a lot of campaigning organisations recently who sense that there is real potential for using open data as part of campaigns – but unsure exactly how it should work and how to start engaging with data (and open data advocates asking the same questions from the other direction). Hopefully we’ll be digging into exactly these questions, and providing some practical learning opportunities and take-away ideas at the upcoming Open Data Campaigning Camp in Oxford on 24th March. It’s tacked onto the end of the E-Campaigning Forum, and I’m co-organising with Rolf Kleef and Javier Ruiz. Free places are still left for organisations interested in spending day of hands-on learning exploring how data could help in campaigning against cuts; on environmental issues; and in international development campaigns and funding.

And talking of development funding… (not only a post of outward links; seemless links internally as well!) – last week the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard‘s first version was full agreed. I had the pleasure of working with Development Initiatives on a demonstrator of how IATI data could be visualised, the results of which are available on AidInfoLabs as the IATI Data Explorer allowing you to pick any country and dig into details of where DFID UK Government Aid spending has gone there – and, where the data is available, digging into the individual transactions.

Skills for the job: digital literacy

In the lead up to the Youth Work Online Month of Action I’ve got an article in Children and Young People Now’s ‘skills for the job’ section, talking about digital literacy. Here’s how it starts:

A lot of what we hear about young people and the internet is focused on e-safety. But digital literacy is about a lot more than that. Digital literacy involves being able to navigate the digital world – making the most of the many opportunities it provides for accessing information, creating connections, having a say, being part of communities and developing skills and knowledge for now and for the future.

Developing young people’s digital literacy needs professionals to engage with the online world – supporting young people to move beyond narrow use of a few social networking websites or apps – to discover the full potential of the internet as a global information resource. It also involves the development of critical skills – enabling internet users to choose what information to engage with. One key part of digital literacy is to know when to multi-task, when to focus, when to be connected, and when to disconnect.

You can read the full article over on the CYPN Website.

In the upcoming Month of Action we’ll be focusing a lot more on these themes – working to build broader networks of practitioners focussed on all aspects of the digital world for young people.

P.S. I’m still on the lookout for a venue for the Month of Action’s unConference. We’re looking for somewhere in London, available on Saturday 16th April, with good Wifi, room for 100 people in break-out spaces, and crucially, either free or low-cost. If you know someone who could sponsor the event by sharing their venue/offices/meeting rooms for the day, do get in touch.

Expectations and Evidence: youth participation and open data

[Summary: Exploring ways to use data as part of a youth participation process.]

Over the last year and a bit I’ve been doing less work on youth engagement and civic engagement processes than I would ideally like. I’m fascinated by processes of participation, and how to design activities and frameworks within which people can actively influence change on issues that affect them – getting beyond simply asking different groups the question ‘what do you want?’ and then struggling to reconcile conflicting answers (or, oftentimes, simple ignoring this input), to create spaces in which the different factors and views affecting a decision are materialised and in which those affected by decisions get to engage with the real decision making process. I’ve had varying levels of successes doing that – but the more time I’ve been spending with public data – the more I’ve been struggling to work out how to bring it into participative discussions in ways that are accessible and empowering to participants.

Generally data is about aggregates: about trends and patterns rather than the specific details of individual cases. Yet in participation, the goal is often to allow people to bring their own specific experience into discussions and to engage with issues and decisions based upon their unique perspectives. How can open datasets complement that process?

The approach I started to explore in a workshop this evening was linking ‘expectations and evidence’ – asking a group to draw upon their experience to write down a list of expectations, based on the questions that had been asked in a survey they had carried out amongst their peers – and then helping them to use IBM Many Eyes to visualise and explore the survey evidence that might support or challenge their expectations (I’ve written up the process of using the free Many Eyes tool over in the Open Data Cook Book). It was a short session, and not all of the group were familiar with the survey questions, so I would be pushed to call it a great success, but it did generate some useful learning about introducing data into participation processes.

1) Stats are scary (and/or boring; and/or confusing)
Even using a fairly interactive data visualisation tool like IBM Many Eyes statistics and data are, for many people, pretty alien things. The idea of multi-variate analysis (looking at more than one variable at once and the relationship between variables) is not something most people spend much time on in school or college – and trying to introduce three-variable analysis in a short youth participation workshop is tricky without leading to quite a bit of confusion.

One participant in this evenings working made the suggestion that “It would be useful to have a reminder of how to read all these charts. What does all this mean?”. Next time I run a similar session (as I’m keen to develop the idea further) I’ll look into finding/preparing a cheat-sheet for reading any data visualisations that get created…

2) ‘Expectations and Evidence’ can provide a good framework to start engaging with data
In this evenings workshop after looking at data we turned to talk about interview questions the group might ask delegates at an upcoming conference. A number of the question ideas threw up new ideas for ‘expectations’ the group had (for example, that youth services were being cut in different ways in different places across the country), which there might be ‘evidence’ available to support or challenge. Whilst we didn’t have time to then go and seek out the relevant data there was potential here to try and then go and search data catalogues and use a range of visualisation and exploration approaches to test those bigger expectations more (our first expectations work focussed on some fairly localised survey data).

3) The questions and processes matter
When I started to think about how data and participation might fit together I sketched out different sorts of questions that participation processes might work with. Different questions link to different processes of decision making…

  • (a) What was your experience of…? (share your story…we’ll analyse)
  • (b) What do you think of…? (give your opinion … we’ll decide what to do with it)
  • (c) What should we do about…? (give us your proposals…)
  • (d) Share this decision with us… (we need to work from shared understanding…)

To introduce data into (a) and (b) is tricky. If the ‘trend’ contradicts an individuals own view or experience, it can be very demanding to ask them to reconcile that contradiction. Of course, creating opportunities for people with experience of a situtation to reconcile tensions between stats and stories is better than leaving it up to distant decision makers to choose whether to trust what the data says, or what people are saying, when it seems they don’t concur – but finding empowering participative processes for this seems tough.

It seems that data can feature in participation more easily when we shift from opinion gathering to decision sharing; but building shared understanding around narratives and around data is not something that can happen quickly in short sessions.

I’m not sure this post gets me towards any great answers on how to link data into participative processes. But, in interests of thinking aloud (and in an effort to reclaim my blogging as reflective practice, getting away from the ways it’s been rather news and reporting driven of late) I’ll let it make it onto the blog, with all reflections/comments very much welcomed…

CfP: Journal Special Issue on Open Data

[Summary: Abstracts wanted for special issue of Journal of Community Informatics focussing on supply and use of open government data in different contexts across the world]

Michael Gurstein’s blog post last year on Open Data: Empowering the Empowered, or Effective Use for Everyone sparked some interesting discussions about how open data policies and practices impact different groups on the ground. The question of what impacts open data will have in different contexts has been picked up in Daniel Kaplan’s recent post on the OKF blog, and the need for different approaches to open data in different countries is a key theme in the draft Open Government Data in India report. With the discussion on open data impacts growing, I’m really pleased to be able to share the Call for Proposal below for a special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics that I’ll be guest editing along with Zainab Bawa of the CIS in India. So, if you’ve been meaning to write an article on the impacts of open data, or you know of grass roots projects in different places across the world working with the supply or use of open data, take a look at the call below…

Journal of Community Informatics: Call for Papers for Special issue on Open Data

Guest editors:  Tim Davies, Practical Participation and Zainab Bawa, CIS-RAW fellow

Call for Proposals
The Journal of Community Informatics is a focal point for the communication of research that is of interest to a global network of academics, Community Informatics practitioners and national and multi-lateral policy makers.

We invite submission of original, unpublished articles for a forthcoming special edition of the Journal that will focus on Open Data. We welcome research articles, case studies and notes from the field. All research articles will be double blind peer-reviewed. Insights and analytical perspectives from practitioners and policy makers in the form of notes from the field or case studies are also encouraged. These will not be peer-reviewed.

Why a special issue on Open Data
In many countries across the world, discussions, policies and developments are actively emerging around open access to government data. It is believed that opening up government data to citizens is critical for enforcing transparency and accountability within the government. Open data is also seen as holding the potential to bring about greater citizens’ participation, empowering citizens to ask questions of their governments via not only the data that is made openly available but also through the interpretations that different stakeholders make of the open data. Besides advocacy for open data on grounds of democracy, it is also argued that opening government data can have significant economic potential, generating new industries and innovations.

Whilst some open government data initiatives are being led by governments, other open data projects are taking a grassroots approach, collecting and curating government data in reusable digital formats which can be used by specific communities at the grassroots and/or macro datasets that can be used/received/applied in different ways in different local/grassroots contexts. INGOs, NGOs and various civil society and community based organizations are also getting involved with open data activities, from sharing data they hold regarding aid flows, health, education, crime, land records, demographics, etc, to actively sourcing public data through freedom of information and right to information acts. The publishing of open data on the Internet can make it part of a global eco-system of data, and efforts are underway in technology, advocacy and policy-making communities to develop standards, approaches and tools for linking and analysing these new open data resources. At the same time, there are questions surrounding the very notion of ‘openness’, primarily whether openness and open data have negative repercussions for particular groups of citizens in certain social, geographic, political, demographic, cultural and other grassroots contexts.

In sum then, what we find in society today is not only various practices relating to open data, but also an active shift in paradigms about access and use of information and data, and notions of “openness” and “information/data”. These emerging/renewed paradigms are also configuring/reconfiguring understandings and practices of “community” and “citizenship”. We therefore find it imperative to engage with crucial questions that are emerging from these paradigm shifts as well as the related policy initiatives, programmatic action and field experiences.

Some of the questions that we hope this special issue will explore are:

  1. How are citizens’ groups, grassroots organizations, NGOs, diverse civil society associations and other public and private entities negotiating with different arms of the state to provide access to government data both in the presence and absence of official open data policies, freedom/right of information legislations and similar commitments on the part of governments?
  2. What are the various models of open data that are operational in practice in different parts of the world? What are the different ways in which open data are being used by and for the grassroots and what are the impacts (positive, negative, paradoxical) of such open data  for communities and groups at the grassroots?
  3. Who/which actors are involved in opening up what kinds of data? What are their stakes in opening up such data and making it available for the public?
  4. What are the different technologies that are being used for publishing, storing and archiving open data? What are the challenges/issues that various grassroots users and the stakeholders, experience with respect to these technologies i.e., design, scale, costs, dissemination of the open data to different publics and realizing the potential of open data?
  5. What notions of openness and publicness are at work in both policies as well as initiatives concerning open data and what impacts do these notions have on grassroots’ practitioners and users?
  6. Following from the above, what are the implications of opening up different kinds of data for privacy, security and local level practices and information systems?

Thematic focus
The following suggested areas of thematic focus (policy, technology, uses, impacts) give a non-exhaustive list of potential topic areas for articles or case studies. The core interest of the special issue is addressing each of these themes from, or taking into account, grassroots, local citizen and community perspectives.

  1. Different policy and practice approaches to open data and open government data
  2. Diverse uses of open data and their impacts
  3. Technologies that are deployed for implementing open data and their implications
  4. Critical assessments of stakeholders and stakes in opening up different kinds of data.
Abstracts are invited in the first instance, to be submitted by e-mail to

Deadline for abstracts: 31st March 2011
Deadline for complete paper submissions: 15th September 2011
Publication date is forthcoming

Please send abstracts, in the first instance, to

For information about JCI submission requirements, including author guidelines, please visit:

Guest Editors

Zainab Bawa
Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) RAW fellow

Tim Davies
Director, Practical Participation ( | @timdavies | +447834856303