How a clash of unfiltered ideas helped open data leaders to innovate

ODI Intern Kathryn Pritchard reflects on challenges faced by open data leaders, and what happens when they bring their ideas together to be tested and honed

Open Data Leaders Network from Open Data Institute on Vimeo.

Participants in the second cohort of the Open Data Leaders’ Network do not have easy jobs.

Teams promoting open data in government are often small and somewhat isolated. As everyone working on open data in government learns, making progress is less about implementing a set of policy objectives and more about changing the very way that people think about data and transparency. This is easier said than done.

There are, however, many benefits to working in such roles. Their sector is dynamic, brimming with individuals who think about problems creatively and make a difference. For this reason ODLN participants are no strangers to innovation. They hear regularly of success stories: new projects using open data to solve problems in innovative ways.

Ivy Ong (Outreach Lead at the Open Data Philippines Taskforce) spoke of the positive impact of the government’s Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, set up within 10 days of the November 2013 typhoon. Paul Stone (Open Data Programme Leader in New Zealand) showed the ways in which open data on vehicle volumes have been successfully used to track GDP.

The ultimate goal of these leaders’ work is to ensure fertile ground for these kinds of innovations to thrive. But how many of these leaders actively considered the methods they themselves were using to achieve that goal? This was the question asked at Wednesday’s “Innovation Workshop” given by the Open Data Challenge Series Programme Manager, Briony Phillips.

Participants were firstly presented with a topology of innovative thinking: that new ideas are essential for successful innovation. This may sound obvious. But Steven Johnson, author of best-selling book ‘Where good ideas come from’, puts forward the convincing argument that these essential ideas include often disregarded “hunches” and less concrete inklings. Too often, it is argued, these ideas are filtered by layers of assumptions and expectations.

The morning of Wednesday’s workshop deconstructed the way in which ideas were formulated and shared. Briony encouraged the leaders not to not throw away their instincts and to use each other for feedback. These feedback mechanisms, after all, are one of the key benefits of a peer-to-peer network. Being in the same physical space as one's peers can also be important for successful innovation: providing an opportunity for ideas that are not fully formed (and hence, perhaps, not email or skype-worthy) to be efficiently sounded.

This clash of unfiltered ideas had a number of exciting results. There were new proposals for connecting the demand and supply of open data, opening up the day-to-day progress of government projects and promoting innovation within their own departments. Later on in the day participants honed and developed their favourite ideas further, using a business planning method to prompt startup-esque thinking.

Most significantly, participants saw the value that could be gained by giving fellow colleagues the time and space to think outside of their usual paradigms. Making all government employees think like a startup for a day, one leader suggested, would “reduce the pool of people blocking the progress of open data.” Another noted it was essential to “insert creativity into the public servants, not just the politicians.” All ended the day with a renewed sense of the excitement that accompanies working in open data, and a desire to spread this amongst their respective governments.

With the ongoing support of the ODI and their new companions, members of the network are planning to work together on new projects to increase the number of bureaucrats embodying the culture of open data innovation. Watch this space.

If you have ideas or experience in open data that you'd like to share, pitch us a blog or tweet us at @ODIHQ.

Kathryn Pritchard is a ODI Services Intern at the ODI.