Open Data Day Cairo 2016

This blog post was written by Adham Kalila from Transport for Cairo

There is a strong institutional fear of open data in Egypt. In a culture attuned to privacy and private spaces, the concern with the potential negative impacts of opening up data and giving access arouses suspicion towards asking too many questions. There is often a tendency to withhold information. For these institutions,  It seems unlikely that some nerdy enthusiasts just want to learn more and solve what they are capable of solving, for little more than the experience and thrill of getting it done. Few imagine this because we do not do it enough. Open Data day and the Cairo Mobility Hackathon were an excellent first step in showing everyone that some of us want to think a little harder and do a bit more with our time and skills. One by one, people and institutions will stop being so suspicious when we can offer help in exchange for their data, openly.

Transport for Cairo (TfC) is a group initiative of young professionals that aims to gather and share information about public transportation to everyone in the most convenient and practical ways: for example printed maps and digital feeds. This project is fundamentally about open data since this data belongs to every citizen. Leading by example, TfC released a GTFS dataset of the Cairo Metro as open data three days before the event.

To celebrate open data TfC in collaboration with the Access 2 Knowledge 4 Development (A2K4D) research centre and Open Knowledge International, called out to Egypt’s open data community to spend a day learning, engaging, and networking. Participants could attend the Cairo Mobility Hackathon or attend workshops held by four organizations from the Cairo community who came to speak and raise awareness about different projects and opportunities around open data in Egypt. The response was uplifting!

The day started with an ice-breaking activity that involved a tennis ball and some funny confessions. After a brief introduction by Mohamed Hegazy, TfC’s director, about the activities of the day and some much-needed coffee, the hackathon and the workshops commenced in earnest. Originally, the workshops were scheduled in parallel but after feedback from participants about wanting to attend overlapping ones, the workshops were rearranged to follow one another. The workshops focused on establishing and fostering an open data culture in Egypt and were given by a number of established organizations including Takween integrated Community Development, the Cairo node of the Open Data Institute, the Support for Information and Technology Center (SITC), and InfoTimes. At the end of the day, A2K4D held a pitching competition for data-fuelled start-ups.

One of the main achievements of the day is the crowd of around 70 people that gathered at the American University in Cairo in Tahrir for ODD. One of the first participants to show up arrived by train all the way from the coastal city of Alexandria just to attend. The hackathon that took place focused on mobility around Cairo, which is a problematic issue close to everyone’s heart. It gave participants the opportunity to learn more about the released dataset, build upon it and engage with the team that created it. To structure the ideathon and give participants a chance to share their projects and ideas, we had a fillable schedule board on the wall for sessions to take place between 6 tables and four-time slots. Slowly but surely, teams started forming around similar projects or topics to be discussed. In one session of the hackathon, everyone was asked to dream up public transit routes (bus, tram, and metro) that would make their daily commutes faster and easier. Different routes were drawn in various colors on a map of Cairo, and the final product has started a thought experiment on where investment was most needed and how to prioritize one route over another. The day ended with our minds opened to new possibilities and ways to engage with the data and with one another.
The one striking thing that was lacking from the day, and I dare say it was not missed, was suspicion. Nobody questioned the motives behind our interest in one another’s experiences, projects, and goals. There was a shared sense of collaboration and engagement and above all, community. Open Data day 2016 in Cairo was a resounding success and we hope to play a bigger role in its organization in the future. If you would like to see more pictures of the day, check out our facebook album.