Nathan Coyle's talk at OSCAL 2022 - Tirana, Albania

In June, I head over to Tirana to speak at OSCAL (Open Source Conference Albania 2022) to talk about the need for disturters within digital activism, using things like open data and open-source for social good - here is the whole talk from that day.

This is the age of the disrupter.

As we move from crisis to crisis, the need for disruptors is more important than ever, those who are just prepared to ask the question and get shit done.

Being a disrupter is taking the ability to visualise things that do not work and think creatively to deconstruct social issues or broken civic systems, rip out the things that don’t work and replace them.

To me, there is something creative about it.

Sometimes you don’t need to paint a beautiful picture to call it art, it’s solving problems, it’s just a bonus if it looks good but what is most important is that it just works!

And that’s usually a theme with mechanisms that surround open source, it ain’t gotta look good as long as it’s effective.

I’m sure, like everybody in this room, open source is a big part of your life, I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a program or license or training that isn’t open source, or at least has elements of that.

I believe the whole terminology of open source is also a mindset, with my work I am constantly thinking if whatever I’m working on can be used again or replicated by somebody else, especially within an international development or a human rights perspective, something that can be tested in one place, and passed around the world to do some good - or at least from my point of view, to ensure policy makers have a body of evidence they can use to make good civic outreach and on the other side, a piece of work campaigners can use to hold decision makers accountable.

It’s safe to say if you think like this, you’ll never be rich but when you are dead and gone, you would have at least done your bit.

Mostly, I think this way with training, I package up a lot of my workshops and hackathons and release them for others to use, things like presentations, manuscripts and support tools, which are usually packaged as toolkits.

Today I want to reflect on my own personal journey with something that I believe has a close relationship with open source, which is open data and what I have been doing to make it more accessible to the civil society.

For those who don’t know what open data is, it's the process that certain information should be freely available to all, replicated without restrictions from copyright. You will find most government institutions have an open data portal, mostly to evidence their commitment to transparency and encourage improvement of government services.

Tech minded activists from all over the world have used open data as a basis to build digital applications that could improve anything from water treatments, environmental services to even maintaining fire hydrants by encouraging citizens to adopt their local neighbourhood standpipe.

This is not a talk on the technical aspects of what open data is, such as dataset availability, reuse and redistribution. This is a talk on outreach mechanisms.

From my work in other Balkan nations I have learned that these technical issues are some of the biggest barriers that civil society and government agents face when approaching open data, but that’s a chat for a different time.

But don’t let this be overwhelming..Because this could also present opportunities. Take the UK for example, one of the biggest issues we have with open data outreach is how it is explained. Language is a big deal and one of the instigators of numerous problems, not just with open data but in regards to wider digital policy too.

Where I am from, open data has an interesting reputation, it’s seen as something highly scientific and academic and a lot of the time, corporate, for example head over to any open data portal you can find, and by the branding, you’ll be forgiven for thinking they are actually corporate entities in their own right.

And this image has a domino effect on understanding how open data is relative to people and organisations outside of corporate minded agents.

And before I head into a community narrative, I just want to say I’m not anti-business or any type of academia, especially with open data, great things are made through cooperation and I have no issues with people making money.

I just feel a certain group has been forgotten, maybe even completely overlooked, and to me, that kind of goes against the grain of something that promotes openness.

And to state the obvious, that has a negative effect on trying to understand something.

To give you another perspective from a governmental angle, and this will be the same in many sectors, senior staff and policy makers feel that they need to be the expert and are sometimes reluctant to ask questions due to their reputation.

Compound this with the image of open data and the ultra corporate training that staff members at these institutions are provided with.

For example, in the UK at one point there was an ultra sleek government backed agency who would go into local government bodies and train them on what they would need to do to create smart city projects.

Imagine if you will that you work for the city government here in Tirana, and you are in a workshop about a particular issue but the person running that training is standing at the front of the room, in a very expensive suit I might add, using highly technical language to explain something which you will have to put in practice after the workshop has finished.

Now, perhaps some of your bamboozled senior colleagues in that workshop will take that information and construct a narrative of what they perceived was taught in this training, without daring to show their confusion, because they are reluctant to expose themselves as they are unsure about the issues, which is very dangerous and will cause drastic problems around outreach, and more importantly trust.

Because they will be forming a narrative on what they feel open data is and then pushing that narrative across the whole organisation and wider community, basically forming a false social culture from the top to the bottom - a lot to fix, and because of a simple piece of strategy.

This has most definitely happened in the UK and other areas of Europe where I have worked, and for the most part, why I have a job.

But let’s head over to the issue of trust for a second.

In the UK you’d find it quite common to see grassroots civil society organisations to have a distrust for government, local gov especially.

A lot of organisations have a notion that they see a lot of projects happen, usually under some sort of branding but as soon as funding runs out or a project ends, everything about it disappears, there is no legacy and there is no more talk about it, you could argue that’s just how it works, but for these civil society organisations, it feels like another pointless project that government has forced on them.

Even if the project has had the best intentions and has influenced policy internally, a lot of the time after the engagement stops, so does the dialogue and that leaves a mark with small community organisations.

But, is it a little more deep seated, is it something that is ingrained in us culturally, to distrust decision makers, and does this spill over to grassroots relationships with our poor public servants when attempting to work with civil society?

Let’s give you some context from my angle.

A famous British politician in the UK once said that “People are sick of experts” and he is right, but not in the way he would probably like me to believe. When the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, said that during the UKs turbulent Brexit referendum campaign it actually resonated more than you would think.

He was basically tapping into the growing anti intellectualism that resonates on our streets, you could argue a lot of political campaigns are based on that in the last few years, unfortunately.

Okay Nathan, what has that got to do with open data? Well it’s quite obvious if you are turning the volume up on an already strained relationship of trust, especially if that local authority is genuinely just trying to get things done, it makes a hard job, even harder, it does have a domino effect.

What I’m trying to say is, when you are explaining policy, don’t just assume, take in all of the narrative facets and consider that when you start outreach, and if you are not clear and the language you use is not relatable, you’ve lost people and it’s already too late.

So, for example, if the open data outreach agenda in Albania is starting its journey compared to other countries, that’s not so much being left behind, actually it’s an opportunity to learn from the mistakes other nations have made and to ensure that doesn't happen here.

Or maybe even develop your own community led agenda.

I’ve always believed that open data, when it’s there, is a massive tool for capacity building within the civil society and charity sector. It can help them to stay on the curve and to carry on doing the great work they do.

And what brings them to the table is stating the obvious, such as what they can do with it and just use that to form an outreach narrative, it can be that simple.

And just to reiterate, and this is from my work either helping to develop policy or civic engagement around open data outreach with a range of international governments from all over the world, alongside multiple local government institutions and leading social foundations in nations such as Kosovo, North Macedonia and Germany - Ps: this isn't me showing off, I’m just trying to showcase this work has actually been tested in practice.

Through this work we held various workshops and hackathons giving the participants from the third sector the chance to influence the government about the language that works for them and would encourage staff to seek out open data and use it for social good.

So, to state the obvious, and I suppose I have to now, outreach themes civil society organisations resonated with were:

Funding - using it as in a base of evidence for grant applications and to justify the need
Reporting, mapping and monitoring social trends
Blogging and journalistic (social action)
Holding decision makers accountable

They also stated the following themes, but if I’m honest a lot of this feedback wasn't used for outreach mechanisms but did help policy makers when approaching project orientation:

These were:

Transparency and democratic control
Civic participation
Economic added value
Social innovation
Empowerment of citizens
Improved efficiency and effectiveness of government services Measurement of policy impact

Based on analysis of participant feedback, I found that:

◉ Government Officers struggled to relate to smaller community organisations.
◉ A lot of Senior Government Officers we interacted with felt they could not ask questions on open data or request training as they felt it is something they should already be familiar with and did not want to risk their reputation.
◉ Third Sector Officers felt disconnected from seeking out open data to use in their work as they felt it does not apply to them due to the language used and how it is portrayed.

But I believe that as we are starting to come out of the other end of the Covid-19 pandemic, an open data agenda could be even more important than ever.

As the UK has emerged from coronavirus, a lot of our third sector organisations have disappeared due to access to funding, basically there is now less money going around with even more priorities than there were before.

These organisations need to learn more about capacity building tools that are available to them, as essentially, even if only for a short while, they are on their own for the time being.

This is important as these types of projects are the cornerstone of community resilience, why? Because the kind of people who work for these types of organisations aren’t sleak technocrats, they are normal people who live and work in those areas with the people they are there to support, they are the real experts who need to be valued and protected as they literally are part of the fabric of these communities.

They don’t need fancy events, tech meetups, networking days or fancy branded websites.

They need specific information that is relevant to improve their work, and we can all agree, helping these types of projects is imperative, especially with finding funding.

From my limited experience of working here in the Balkans, misinformation has been a thorn in the side of governments and since I’m here today I thought it may be a nice way to give feedback on that and offer some personal context on this.

Some of the most sceptical people in the world about covid were the citizens of Kosovo. According to a poll taken by a Pristina-based statistical analysis company, a third of the people who live in Kosovo thought that Covid-19 is a hoax, even after the Prime Minister at the time got the virus.

And there was a very similar playing field in North Macedonia, a canvas from Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group stated that over 50% of the people sampled believed in all of the conspiracy theories, the combined percentage of those who believed in some or all of those theories totalled at over 80%, that’s a lot of people….

In the same report, they sampled people from Western Balkans, such as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo. Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, and – of all of those who took part in the polls – North Macedonians were the most likely to be in the “I certainly will not” have the Covid-19 vaccine category with Kosovo coming just behind.

Remember when I said people are sick of experts? It’s not just here in Europe.

Anthony S. Fauci, US chief medical advisor, warned about the importance of being aware of “anti-science bias” as a danger to public health. As I read report after report about conspiracies and ‘vaccine hesitancy’ coming out of south Balkan countries, it was easy to see the same themes emerging.

Away from Covid.

We live in a world where there are some serious and important people trying to create something called ‘post-truth’, they watch our anxieties and strong arm their own perception of facts to fit their own specific narrative - I find it utterly incredulous we even have to put together a case to base our narratives on facts and campaign to get our leaders to evidence the data they base their ideas on.

But we have people leading the fight against this in some of the most creative of ways, again with our distrupers, take this example, The Uncensored Library, made by reporters without borders, a building made in Minecraft filled with uncensored articles, journals and information from all over the world as a way to get around censorship in countries without freedom of the press.

The library contains banned reporting from Mexico, Russia, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. An entire wing is given to each country, each containing several banned articles.

So if you can’t access information via conventional means in these countries, you can pop on Minecraft, access the map via a server or download it.

As human beings, we hold axioms in high regard and in a modern world, we do need technology to derive from the world in our head to the actual facts, sometimes the only way to find the truth is to go out and see it, but of course that is not always possible.

In 1908 an American anthropologist called Paul Radin studied the Native American Winnebago tribe, this concentrated on two factions living in the same village. Radin learned that the two kinship groups saw the village made up in a completely different way to the other. Studying this, he asked the residents to draw the settlement and both groups saw the village in very different ways, as one group drew the houses positioned in a circle shape while the other group drew their homes in a diametrical way, with an imaginary line between the two groups.

Years later Belgian born French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss analysed these drawings, he raised a key question that it was not how the village was laid out, but instead why did the two groups perceived reality so differently?

What does that mean? We instinctively learn towards an imaginary divide, in laymens terms, we are easily led as a populus in regards to the information we are presented with.

The sharing of facts is the best way to combat this really. I think it is fair we have built a society based on information, everything from radio to television to print, but also how our healthcare and one of the main reasons why we have the potential to live so long.

But when you starve people of that knowledge, or inject false narrative, it is too easy to manipulate the conversation and since we are an emotive species, eventually a constant barrage of information will cut through.

The technological revolution has changed the way we live, work and even love, but it’s also worth noting the internet can cause severe damage to us, our mental health for example, but nothing is perfect and it is definitely here to stay as it gets integrated into pretty much every aspect of our lives.

This is why we need data minded change makers who are willing to disrupt the system in the name of justice and truth, and our journalists are a very powerful ally here, or even learning journalistic skills in order to use it to tell a powerful and evidence based narrative.

I hope, and if I and my fellow distrupers in my country have anything to do with it, we can start to see open data as an enabler rather than logistical obstacle when it comes to using it for social action.

From looking around this room and hearing about your work, I’m confident Albania is in good hands.

I’d like to finish by saying, barriers in some countries can in fact be seen as opportunities for others, you have the knowledge and power to influence policy makers to also include civil society when we start to think about how we communicate digital strategy.

Open data should not be a closed club, I mean, the clue is in the name, isn't it? Thank you.