Open Personae: a step towards user-centred data developments?

[Summary: reflections on data-shaped design, and adding user persona as a new raw material in working with open data]

A lot has been written recently about the fact that open data alone is not enough to make a difference. Data needs to be put into the hands of those who can use it to make a difference, and if the only way to do that is as a programmer, or someone with the resources to hire one, we end up with a bigger, rather than narrower, data divide.

Infomediaries, with the technical skills to take data and create accessible interface onto it; to integrate it into existing systems; and to make it accessible to be communicated to those who need it, are a key part of the solution. However, unlike common software and resource development challenges, which often start from a clearly articulated problem and user needs, and then work backwards to source data and information, open data projects often have a different structure. A need is recognized; data is identified; data is opened; and then from the data applications and resources are built. The advantage of open data is that, rather than data being accessed just to solve one particular problem, it is now available to be used in a wide range of problem solving. But, there is a risk that the structure of the open data process introduces a disconnect: specific problems drive demands for open data, but open data offers general solutions – and those with the skills to work with data may not be aware of, or connected with, the specific problems that motivated the desire to open the data in the first place; nor with other specific problems which the data, now it is open, can be part of solving.

When open data is the primary raw material for a project, that data can exert a powerful influence in shaping the design of the project and its outputs. The limitations of the data quickly become accepted as limitations of the application; the structure of the data is often presented to the user, regardless of whether this is the structure of information they need to be able to use the application effectively. Data-shaped design is not necessarily good design. But finding ways to put users back at the heart of projects, and adopt user-centered design approaches to working with data can be a challenge.

The frictionless nature of accessing data contrasts heavily with the friction involved in identifying and working with potential users of a data-driven application. For technical developers interested in experimenting with data in hack-day contexts*, or working in small, time and resource-limited, projects, the overheads of user engagement are a big ask. It’s an even bigger challenge in projects like the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), where with aidinfo labs I’m currently trying to support development of informediary apps and resources for users spread across the globe: users who might be in low-bandwidth/limited Internet access environments, or in senior governmental positions, where engagement in a user-workshop is not easy to secure.

So – without ignoring the need to have real user engagement in a project – one of the things we’re just starting to experiment with in the aidinfo labs project, is adding another raw material alongside our open data. We’re creating a set of ‘open personae’ – imaginary profiles of potential users of applications and resources built with IATI data, designed to help techies and developers gain insights into the people who might benefit from the data, and to help provide a clearer idea of some of the challenges applications need to meet.

So far we’ve created four personae (borrowing one from another project), simply working in open Google Docs so that we can collaboratively draft them, and leave them open to comment to help them develop. And we’re planning to create lots more over the coming months (with fantastic support from Tara Burke who is researching and writing a lot of the profiles), created as an open resource so others can use them too.

I’m keen to explore how these personae can provide a first step to greater user-centered design in data use – and how we can use them as an intuitive tool for us to explore who is being best served by the eco-system of applications and infomediaries around IATI data. I’m also curious about the potential for a wider library of open personae to be used to help other open data projects include users as a key raw material for app building.

If ‘Data + Data-use skills + Involvement of Users’ is a part of ‘effective use’ of open data, then ‘Data + Skills + Understanding of users’ must be a step in the right direction…

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