Creative bureaucrats around the world find an outlet in open data

ODI Services Business Manager Emma Truswell reflects on the first day of the ODI's second Open Data Leaders Network: where open data leaders from around the world gather for a week to share perspectives, challenges and best-practices.

What brings together a journalist, an economist/frustrated artist, a community organiser, a statistician, a designer/frustrated economist, and an IT enthusiast?

These are all people who have found their calling leading their government’s implementation of open data initiatives. And they are the members of our second Open Data Leaders Network cohort here at the ODI. These leaders have found that open data is a field that combines their interest in public service with the opportunity to achieve real change, quickly, and in creative ways.

The first day of our Open Data Leaders Network cohorts is an exciting time. As a handful of the world’s most talented and inspiring government innovators gather in our training room, we start to hear stories from around the world. In this cohort, we have leaders from Romania, Argentina, the Philippines, Tanzania, New Zealand and Ecuador. Despite their different backgrounds, our leaders’ stories have much in common: in particular, convincing sceptical, risk-averse colleagues that sharing data will lead to growth and opportunity, and need not be feared.

Liz Carolan, our International Development Manager, asked participants to begin by explaining what their government is doing with open data – and to tell us what they would be doing if they weren’t in open data. The answers combined creativity and community-building. They reminded me of the capacity of government service to attract a huge wealth of talents and skills: some of which government is good at mobilising, and some of which remain untapped.

For those bureaucrats frustrated by the talents that lie dormant in government – perhaps their talents for art, technology or community building – open data can fill the gap. As one participant commented, recalling her early days in the public sector, "I wanted to quit every day for the first few months... until I found open data."

There’s no easy way to characterise an open data leader. They are creative people who need to be comfortable talking about the details of technology platforms; they work for government and spend much of their time convincing it to change the way it operates; and they need to be comfortable working across a broad spectrum of policy questions: education, health, water, economy, as well as open government and public sector reform. And they need to be outstanding communicators, constantly convincing insiders and outsiders that the potential of open data justifies the effort.

As a policy enthusiast without much background in computing, it often confuses my friends that I’m now working in open data. So I was reassured to hear that, not long ago, a colleague asked Paul Stone, our Open Data Leader from New Zealand,

[Are] you still in IT?

After a few moments, he responded by saying:

I don’t know... I think I’m now in culture change.

The Open Data Leaders Network brings together outstanding government leaders of open data initiatives from around the world. The ODI’s leadership of this network is supported by funding from the Canadian International Development Research Centre and the European Commission. Find out more.

Emma Truswell is Services Business Manager at the ODI. Follow @EmmaTruswell on Twitter.