Monday, May 13, 2013

Capacitors and Open Data

This past weekend I took a road trip with two of my fellow board members of the very soon-to-be-officially-open hackerspace of Windsor, Ontario to GOOpenData: a one day conference dedicated to "bringing together developers, administrators, educators and citizens from across Ontario for an open dialog about open data" being held in Waterloo.

On this drive up I was nominated to give a brief lightning talk. So before I settled in for the night, I wrote something up from our conversations in the car and then presented those words at the conference the next day.

Thank you years of blogging experience for the ability to capture and convey ideas within strict time constraints.  And with that caveat...

Hello. My name is Mita Williams. I am a board member of the soon to be “officially” launched “Hackforge” - a hackerspace in Windsor, Ontario.

Some people think that we started this hackerspace because we like capacitors. But that’s not entirely true. We started Hackforge because we wanted to encourage and grow community capacity. Hackforge is about making something larger than we, as individuals, could ever do on our own. This mission is expressed in our motto: cum malleis, impellemus unam incudem | With many hammers we strike one forge.

One of ways we have done this is by bringing different groups in the community together to places where we find we can all learn from each other.

For example, earlier this year Hackforge members helped mentor University of Windsor and St. Clair College students as they worked through a 24 hour hack-jam using City of Windsor Open Data.  Our Hackforge 'Hammers' received training on developing for mobile devices and gained personal experience as they passed this knowledge on to the students.  The students were able to grow and showcase their technical skills for their own portfolio, and the City of Windsor could demonstrate that their open data catalogue could support useful and interesting mobile developments.

But let me tell you a secret: the students (and our hackforge members) told us that the municipal open data alone.... was kinda boring.

Fair enough. I think we can all understand why a citizen or a developer or a developing citizen would like access to a variety of data from various institutions made freely available to help our students, our journalists, our social workers, our activists, our health professionals, and ourselves to help us make sense of our world.

What could we do if we knew how many people were visiting each food bank each day?  What if our community groups decided to share their volunteer pools with each other? What if our non-profit annual reports could use the same baseline community data and extrapolate from each others’ findings?

But - that being said - if we look to our non-profit communities as just new sources of data to exploit in our applications -- then we will make the same mistake of thinking and framing our work as building with capacitors instead of building for community capacity.

And that’s our challenge - how can we find ways to reach and work with some of the most stretched of non-profit groups and help them make the work of capturing, sharing, and reusing data done in such a way where they can both grow in their understandings, grow as organizations, as well as grow as individuals.

Because it is individuals who have the capacity to make change in their communities. And the data can only support this. 

We'd love to continue this conversation with you on how to bring non-profit groups into the work with Open Data and we thank the organizers of GO OpenData for today and for helping make these conversations possible.

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