Open Data Durban: Promoting open data access in Durban
Submitted by: Bukelwa Nzimande, Friday, October 9, 2015
Living in the information era is often coupled with the notion that information has become more easily accessible, and can through various platforms and systems be analysed and shared more effectively and efficiently than in previous times. This notion is however “easily challenged by the reality of the lack of systems and tools which aid in accessing, collating and further verifying data or information” says Richard Gevers, the founder of Open Data Durban (ODD), an organisation aimed at promoting access to data within the city of Durban. “Whether you are an academic researcher, a journalist or public citizen searching for information, one finds that data is often restricted and not easily accessible to the general public. If information is eventually obtained, it is either difficult to rationalise or cannot be validated, as a result hindering growth and discouraging data-driven innovative development in the city,” he explains. After conducting some research, Gevers came across cities like Baltimore and London that had developed their own open data portals where citizens could easily access data and information to meet their immediate needs, and which improved the functionality of these cities. Gevers realised that there were no active open data movements in Durban and therefore decided to initiate ODD.
Establishment of Open Data Durban
Gevers initiated ODD at the end of May 2015 and is currently in the process of registering it as a non-profit organisation. ODD’s mission statement is “aiming to build powerful and insightful tools to understand the city and bring about positive social change by promoting and advocating for open access data while focusing on the development of open data methodologies for application to urban challenges within the city of Durban; increasing local awareness by creating a platform for people to interact and together discover innovative solutions and develop tools which increase data accessibility; and advocating for cross-sectoral data transparency in business, academia, media, and government systems while keeping public needs and interests at the fore.”
Since its establishment ODD has through various social platforms such as monthly meetups, workshops, and hackathon events called “dataquests”, initiated the first open data movement in the city of Durban. Monthly meetups focus on gathering different groups of people with an interest in open data and urban development to share ideas. “Open Data Durban meetups are not only for Techies, but are for anyone who believes in data openness and envisions a better and more functional city with improved systems,” said Gevers. Meetups usually include inviting a guest speaker from a different city or country to share on their own city’s innovative ideas and provide some pointers on how Durban can begin thinking in a similar way. These meetups create a platform for the sharing of ideas and for promoting forward thinking amongst a group of differently inclined people who share a similar interest in urban development. Previous meetups have included presentations and discussions on open data from a local and international perspective including presentations from eThekwini Municipality, Code for SA and Code for Germany. ODDs ‘hackathons’ focus on gathering interested people together with the intention of developing useful innovative tools that display information and data in more user friendly ways. The first ODD hackathon focused on recycling and sustainable waste usage.
Current projects and work
In addition to the monthly meetups, ODD is currently in the process of working on a number of projects, a few of which include the School of Data fellowship program which aims to “embed” data scientists into government to aid with data skills and open data advocacy. As the first School of Data fellow in Durban, Gevers will be spending the next three months embedded in eThekwini Municipality, to assist with drafting the City’s open data policy while developing some open data tools and projects. These will include developing “How Tos” for Durban similar to Open Oaklands - Oakland Answers web portal, as well as working on developing an app which will show users where their nearest recycling stations are located in Durban. The organisation is also working on a few collaborative ventures with different institutions and organisations such as Code for Africa and Code for South Africa. These are bigger organisations set on finding solutions and bringing data openness in Africa and are driving the open data movement in their different jurisdictions.
The partnerships with Code for Africa and Code for South Africa have opened up more collaboration opportunities for ODD. One of these included being invited to attend the recent African Open Data Conference which took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and brought together African governments, businesses, and communities, foundations, and other interested parties committed to promoting or supporting open data and open government. Gevers will also be taking part in the Urban Innovation and Leadership Lab, a Global Leadership Academy and Impact Solutions initiative that is set to run over a six months period in Berlin, Durban and Shanghai. This collaborative process will bring together different leaders and organisations who wish to develop their potential to address present-day challenges linked to urban development.
ODDs achievements and way forward
The organisation has been well received by Durban citizens and has received positive sentiments thus far. “Open data and civic technology is a new concept and has inspired many into looking at data. This is exciting for the open data movement in Durban” commented Gevers. Although in its early stages, the organisation is proud to have attained a number of noteworthy achievements, such as setting up an open data community in Durban; establishing a steering committee to provide guidance to the organisation and its developments; successfully hosting four meetups and hosting a Dataquest which gathered people to work on developing different data tools based on provided datasets. The next Dataquest will be held in later this month, and will be focused on finding existing open government (national, provincial, municipal) datasets and uploading them to the new National Government Open Data Portal. A number of Dataquests will be taking place in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban in support of South Africa becoming the chair of the Open Government Partnership in the next year.
Going forward, Gevers explains that ODD hopes to host more events with a wider participation and reach; start rallying up more projects; and set up a Civic Technology Lab in Durban, which will create a space where people can come and work on projects, share ideas and create solutions for everyday city or urban related issues. “In addition to the dataquests, meetups and other events the lab will be the home of our core team, and then we will host lab nights once a week in the evenings for our community to come and work on projects, engage with datasets that relate to the city, write data blogs or stories, and engage with new technology,” adds Gevers. ODD is a community driven organisation and therefore aims to work on projects that meet the needs of the public and further raise awareness on data openness. Gevers explained that “ODD recognises the importance of working on projects that are user-centric and user-driven, and meet an actual need by providing a real solution.” ODD also hopes to incubate civic tech businesses, and creating data or civic technology learning environments and therefore hope to be involved in teaching school children to code and engage with data science early in their careers.
Anyone who is interested in getting involved and attending some of the Open Data Durban events can join their meetup page and also follow them on Facebook to keep updated with their latest developments. For more information, contact Richard Geveers by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow him on Twitter (@richardgevers).
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