Open data, civil society and data journalism in Sri Lanka

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I delivered a presentation on open data, civil society and data driven journalism at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), as part of a half-day introductory seminar on ‘open data’ organised by Internews Network.

The seminar looked at ‘open data’ and discussed the role civil society, the media and technologists can play in advocating to government to open up its data, enabling a culture of transparency and open government.

Details of the seminar, agenda and fellow speakers here.

My presentation started by touching on work and research around the use of big data in peacebuilding and conflict transformation, to which I’ve written I’ve penned an article in the International Journal on Security and Development.

I went on to look at Sri Lanka’s social media ‘pulse’ and how, even though the likes of Twitter and Facebook in particular don’t lend themselves to big data research, and don’t by default or easily provide open data, the content published and shared therein can be leveraged to strengthen situational awareness and over time, ascertain trends and generate insights.

I referred to #lka and #srilanka hashtags over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (referencing accounts like Sri Lankan Baton and Every Day Sri Lanka on Twitter, that use rotation curation) as well as sites like Herefeed and Sightsmap, as simple yet effective means through which issues often marginal to or erased from mainstream media, as well as perspectives on other stories that have generated wide public interest can be easily gleaned, and captured with relative ease for posterity.

I then went on to talk about my own Twitter archives, which for Groundviews have captured hundreds of thousands of tweets over many years. I used this as an example of how ephemeral content on platforms like Twitter can be archived comprehensively. Even if the original producer of a tweet deleted content, the archives would remain unaffected.

Speaking briefly around data journalism, I used examples of what the Centre for Policy Alternatives had done around infographics (using social polling data), my own work with Google Earth imagery to examine inconvenient truths around the end of the war, and data driven stories on Groundviews related to the former President’s colossal waste of food, surveillance architectures in Sri Lanka and how Coca-Cola polluted Colombo’s drinking water.

I then went on to flag repositories of open data on the web, related to Sri Lanka. One of the points I made is the complete incoherence regarding open data in Sri Lanka, where no overarching policy in government exists to data to support open data across the whole of government. One result of this is what I showcased – multiple repositories and locations, each with their own proprietary backend and frontend, to host and public open data, with significant variance around the quality and range of datasets.

Speaking briefly about HDX and HXL (from UN OCHA) in the context of humanitarian open data sets (and how one visualisation from UN Global Pulse anchored to Twitter showed interesting aspects when juxtaposed with Sri Lanka’s political developments around the 8th of January), I flagged that globally, the conversations around and the movement towards open government and open data was in fact quite mature.

I encourage the participants to read the seminal ‘Beyond Transparency’ book, available for free online and said that platforms like Socrata were sadly largely unknown and unused in Sri Lanka as a means of opening up, publishing and cross-linking open data (from government).

I ended the presentation by flagging several key challenges, from a rights based perspective, around the use of big or open data, in the context of Sri Lanka in particular. I spoke about the dangers of discrimination as a consequence of being featured in, or being left out of big data analysis. I flagged that discrimination could occur not just at the most granular or individual level, but at the level of communities or geo-fenced boundaries. Complementing the submission by fellow speaker Nalaka Gunawardene I also made the point that open data was not just about the creation of new power centres and gatekeepers (those who had the media literacy, computing power, financial resources and intellectual acumen to capture and analyse big data) but more importantly about making data as accessible as possible to citizens for them to use as they saw fit, though the devices and platform they used.

Shifting power to the grassroots is I believe a fundamental tenet of open government, which needs to move away from the mere provisioning of a few random datasets infrequently updated to a more robust, policy driven, timely, transparent and measurable architecture that allows citizens access to information that benefits their lives, and can be used by them to solve challenges they face as individuals, neighbourhoods, communities and collectives.

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