April 20, 2014

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What Open Data Means to Marginalized Communities

Two symbols of this era of open data are President Obama’s Open Governance Initiative, a directive that has led agencies to post their results online and open up data sets, and Ushahidi, a tool for crowdsourcing crisis information. While these tools are bringing openness to governance and crisis response respectively, I believe we have yet to find a good answer to the question: what does open data means for the long-term social and economic development of poor and marginalized communities?

I came to Nairobi on a hunch. The hunch was that a small digital mapping experiment taking place in the Kibera slum would matter deeply, both for Kiberans who want to improve their community, and for practitioners keen to use technology to bring the voiceless into a conversation about how resources are allocated on their behalf.

So far I haven’t been disappointed. Map Kibera, an effort to create the first publicly available map of Kibera, is the brainchild of Mikel Maron, a technologist and Open Street Map founder, and Erica Hagen, a new media and development expert, and is driven by a group of 13 intrepid mappers from the Kibera community. In partnership with SODNET (an incredible local technology for social change group), Phase I was the creation of the initial map layer on Open Street Map (see Mikel’s recent presentation at Where 2.0). Phase II, with the generous support of UNICEF, will focus on making the map useful for even the most marginalized groups within the Kibera community.

What we have in mind is quite simple: add massive amounts of data to the map around 3 categories (health services, public safety/vulnerability and informal education) then experiment with ways to increase awareness and the ability to advocate for better service provision. The resulting toolbox, which will involve no tech (drawing on printed maps), and tech (SMS reporting, Ushahidi and new media creation) will help us collectively answer questions about how open data itself, and the narration of such data through citizen media and face-to-face conversations, can help even the most marginalized transform their communities.

We hope the methodology we develop, which will be captured on our wiki, can be incorporated into other communities around Kenya, and to places like Haiti, where it is critical to enable Haitians to own their own vision of a renewed nation.
cross-posted to the In An African Minute blog.