Open Data vs. COVID-19 Workshop: Open Data and Community Engagement in North Macedonia

On September 25, Nathan Coyle from New Union facilitated an online workshop in North Macedonia on open data and community engagement: Open Data vs. COVID-19. The workshop was organized by the Metamorphosis Foundation and was part of the activities to promote the Open City Initiative in North Macedonia that Metamorphosis Foundation is implementing within the USAID Civic Engagement Project.

The aim of the workshop was to raise awareness among various stakeholders about the Open City Initiative and help them understand how using open data and engaging community members can solve local problems. Representatives of municipalities and civil society organizations from North Macedonia attended the workshop.

What is the Open City Initiative?

The Open City Initiative aims to transform cities (local governments) into more transparent, open and accessible organizations that are in constant contact with citizens and continuously work towards meeting their needs. The Open City Initiative facilitates opportunities for members of local communities to use open data to improve the quality of life.

For citizens to feel the benefits of open data, cities today need to do much more than just open their data. Local authorities need to work with citizens and use open data to address local problems and challenges.

About the Workshop

The workshop provided information and insights on how COVID-19 created opportunities to learn how government officials can interact with NGOs in our local communities.

Nathan presented some of the work that has been conducted with governments across the world on open data outreach with a focus on open data outreach requirements and needs during the Covid-19 pandemic. This gave participants ideas on how they can use open data to better interact with NGOs, even using the pandemic to find new social trends within their community.

What participants found very helpful were Nathan’s recommendations on how they can communicate the open data agenda to community groups and how they can bring them on board going forward. Open data is not a closed club just for those who are in the know, but should be open to all. A conclusion from the discussion was that it is very important to know your market and to tailor how you explain open data.

The experience from a recent project New Union has been running with Governments across the world on how they can improve the update of government open data for NGOs who work in these countries was particularly interesting.

Participants discussed why using open data is important for civil society that has the capacity for social change in communities and that governments should do more to help the sector better understand open data and how it can be used to improve their capacity. The workshop also covered what are the problems with using open data and how open data can be better used by community groups for reporting, mapping and monitoring social trends, founding, blogging and journalism.

Some of the activities during the workshop sparked debates and some interesting discussions.

The first activity looked at strategies for harvesting data from our communities:

A number of themes emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic such as: stories from people who have had to isolate, the effect of COVID-19 on people’s mental health, the increased usage of alcohol, the effect of job losses in the country and the impact of business restrictions on small business owners.

Participants deliberated on some of the consequences the Coronavirus has caused in communities across North Macedonia and how communities can be included in gathering evidence to document the effects.

Participants used the post it notes system on Google Jamboard and provided their individual inputs. Here are the received contributions that we discussed within the whole group:

• Green spaces have been used more - maybe we can ask local res to doc their fav thing about their local space.
• People started using more bikes and alternative methods of transport - maybe it is time to work on the infrastructure of the city.
• People don't socialize as much; they are more lonely - there was a discussion for help lines.
Since we are traveling less, the local government of the touristic cities in North Macedonia can work on promotion of their tourist attractions.
• Anonymous boxes in pharmacies – There was a case study from one of our partners in Croatia, how one NGO wanted to help victims of domestic violence. During the lockdown the statistics showed that domestic violence has jumped, unfortunately. So, the victims of violence could leave a note in the local pharmacies in order to get help.
• Access to education was limited, need to work more on open educational resources.
• Education is a burning issue. At the moment, there is this number – approximately 40 000 students do not have computers, and the Ministry of Education introduced a national online platform for studying. The technical resources, expertise and knowledge of digital tools needs to be improved. Rural communities are way behind from the urban.
• People were riding their bikes more often- this increased the discussions over having bike friendlier cities.

Participants agreed that COVID-19 has brought about new challenges and that community groups must work together with central and local governments to better address these difficulties.

The workshop also included a presentation of examples of how different countries are dealing with open data and COVID-19 outreach at the central and local level.

The second activity was about putting a human face on data:

During this activity we discussed how data can help us post COVID-19 - captaining on data trends to create lasting social change.

It was noted that the average citizen seems to struggle with getting a grip on datasets as most people do not identify with the concept of using open data.

With the Coronavirus pandemic data that is presented daily in the media we discussed how this momentum can be used to give open data a human face.

Participants again used the post it notes system on Google Jamboard to provide their individual inputs. Here are the received contributions that were discussed:

• New business and retail trends - education and support for targeting the future business possibilities in the new normal period.
• Has MKD lockdown worked in other countries? For example, has curfew permits worked and what has been personal reflection.
• Data about lost jobs - targeted training and support programs.
• Sharing TRUE stories. I remember I have read about the famous battle cry of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign: It’s about the economy, stupid! SO, if it about people, connect it with people, TRUE stories, real examples.
• Data about using bikes vs. cars - improving city infrastructure (making it more bike friendly).
• Conspiracy theories, what are personal reflections on them and did any resonate in MKD?
• Data about lost businesses - campaign about using local products and services.
• Do front line workers feel valued? What are their reflections of COVID from feeling not important before to know, how would THEY like to see how it is sustained?

A discussion was held on the importance of putting a human face on open data and consequently how this can improve the social culture around open data usage if people can visualize what it means.

The results of the evaluation of the workshop showed a high level of satisfaction. Participants' answers showed that the goals of the workshop were met and that it improved their knowledge of the topic. Most of them said that the workshop encouraged them to think more about supporting NGOs to use more open data. The lack of capacity of public institutions and lack of training were identified as the biggest issues why NGOs do not use open data. The interactive approach during the workshop, i.e. the opportunity to discuss, comment and activity work received very positive feedback from the participants.