Action Lab #3

What would help the global civic tech community to overcome common barriers to accessing quality information?

mySociety convened an Action Lab (aka working group) of seven individuals, who worked together to answer the above question and then commission a paid piece of work based on their conclusions.

About

As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, on 24th March 2022 we convened a Civic Tech Surgery that brought together a group of civic tech practitioners and researchers from across the world. During the Surgery, attendees discussed common challenges in accessing good quality information and data for civic tech projects, some of the ways they’ve found to meet these challenges, and ideas for what might be missing.

You can find resources from this online event here, including minutes, a summary blog post, contributions from attendees, and the full recording.

The Action Lab’s mandate

The purpose of this Action Lab was to use the information gathered at the above Surgery to discuss and decide on a piece of work that would be most useful to produce in order to help the global civic tech community address common challenges of accessing good quality information/data for their projects. 

Common challenges identified at the Civic Tech Surgery were:

Data is often not in the right format to use digitally or is not machine-readable – documents have to be scanned and then digitised through OCR.

Officialdom/authorities can be problematic in a number of ways:

  • They might demand unwarranted fees for information;
  • They might be ignorant of legislation such as FOI that requires them to provide information on demand;
  • Laws might be contradictory, for example one law might penalise officials who give out information, while another gives citizens the right to request it;
  • There might a low level of understanding as to how the data could be used;
  • There can be concerns that the data would uncover the authorities’ own corruption;
  • They might stop publishing data or change the format it is in, due to political circumstances;
  • They might work to different deadlines or timescales than is useful for organisations’ needs.

Even if the data is available, it can be too complex for a non-expert to understand.

Good open source code that exists might not be suitable for every country’s circumstances.

The below possible solutions to the above challenges were identified at the Surgery – these, and others, were discussed by Action Lab members:

  • When authorities can see the data in use, it’s much easier for them to understand why it’s needed – so resources showing examples of where civic tech is working elsewhere (for example in other countries) or making prototype tools that show what could be done might be a solution.
  • Groups could publish stories in the media about what happens when data stops being published or changes in a way that damages the tools people rely on.
  • Could data sources be archived to provide a permanent home in case the official sources stop publishing them?
  • Educating the public to make them understand data better – through blog posts, podcasts, ‘data translators’ or whatever means.
  • Publishing case studies that explain solutions that haven’t worked, as well as those that have.
  • Training for NGOs and organisations on how to engage with authorities.
  • Training for the public on how to use data.
  • Translating existing guidance on open data standards into languages other than English, so more public authorities around the world can use them.
  • Producing resources that explain the value of open data standards rather than just advocating for open data standards in of themselves.
  • Research how access to information laws apply to datasets and how those laws work in practice.

Action Lab #3 members

You can see biographies of Action Lab #3 members here.

Action Lab #3 meetings

Action Lab #3 met on 1st June 2022. Below are the minutes from this meeting:

Commissioned work by Action Lab #3

TICTeC Action Lab #3 members agreed to commission a piece of work that creates resources to help train organisations/ the public in accessing good quality data. The call for proposals closed on 28th July 2022 and the grant was awarded to Open North Inc to develop an online course on data governance and data quality.