Closing feedback loops for more & better open data in Switzerland

Last week, the annual open data conference in Switzerland took place in St. Gallen. In this post, Oleg Lavrovsky, activist for Open Knowledge and board member of the Swiss Chapter, shares a look back at the event showcasing the latest developments in the country, with results of the first Open Data Student Awards. For more coverage, photos and links visit Opendata.ch/2018.

The #opendatach conference is, for the dedicated, a 24 hour event – starting this year around 6pm on Monday, when Rufus Pollock joined us in Zürich, lasting until 6pm on Tuesday July 3, as a light apéro and quick clean-up closed the doors on the eighth annual gathering of the Swiss Open Knowledge community.

A group of organizers and core contributors spent a balmy afternoon perched in the loft at the Impact Hub, debating the state of the nation – which a recent ch.okfn.org blog post recounts – reviewing the recommendations of our Task Force, distributing and discussing the new book. A short night later we were on an early train with Hannes Gassert, checking waypoints over cups of green tea.

Finally we arrive on site in St.Gallen, the economic and political center of eastern Switzerland, and host to a modern, internationally renowned University of Applied Sciences – whose main building was rapidly transformed into our favourite habitat: a burgeoning centre for activism, critical thought and debate.


After quickly saying hello we set to work on setting up the rooms, dodging streams of students rushing to class. In one hacky corner of the event, an unconference showcase sponsored by the local IT community featured 9 projects, submitted through an online platform (hack.opendata.ch), and whose team members were attending the conference. A colorful showcase wall, next to the entrance to the main room where keynotes took place, engendered imaginative discussion, giving participants a chance to find and meet the makers of innovative projects made with open data.

Photo credit: Ernie Deane, CC BY-SA 3.0

You’ll find excellent coverage of the morning’s plenary sessions in the Netzwoche article, highlighting the readiness which our host city St. Gallen demonstrated to support open government data (OGD), sharing a preview of their new open data platform. We learned insights from the cross-border collaboration that has taken place over the past years between the OGD administrations of the cities of St. Gallen and Vienna. Balancing out the mood in the room, we got to hear compelling remarks from a project leader who has so far been frustrated in his attempts to gain funding and political support for his open political data initiative:

“The biggest problem, however, is not the lack of access to data or lack of know-how among those involved. The parliamentary services now provide a good API, so that linking and interpreting various data is feasible. What is lacking above all is sustainability, and in particular sustainable financing.” –Daniel Black, smartmonitor

Keynotes

In the keynote by André Golliez, his upcoming departure from the role as president of Opendata.ch was announced, and he shared his vision for the recently founded Swiss Data Alliance. In this, he strives to make open data a key component of data policy and data infrastructure development in Swiss government and industry. Looking back on how open data has fared in politics since Barack Obama, he expressed worries about the pendulum turning in another direction, and encouraged us not to take things for granted. Hitting closer to home, André spoke about the right to data portability, specifically mentioning revisions to the Swiss Data Protection Act which follow the EU’s GDPR – encouraging our community to get involved in the debate and political process.

In our final – much anticipated – morning keynote, Rufus Pollock came on stage to share his renewed vision for openness activism, introducing the main ideas from his new book, The Open Revolution, which he was selling and signing in the conference hall. In Switzerland, we have been keeping close track on developments in the open knowledge movement, influencing our own ongoing organizational transformation as a new generation of activists, policymakers, data wranglers push the project forward. The ideas within the book have been a cause of ceaseless debate for the weeks before the conference, and will surely continue through the summer. Some people complain about seeing the relevance, and we have been enjoying the ensuing debate.

Even if Rufus did not manage to convince everyone in the room – if the language barrier, stories from foreign shores, or his radical-common-sense philosophy fail to attract immediate policy or media attention (NB: we eagerly await publication of an interview in the next issue of Das Magazin – follow @tagi_magi), they are certainly leaving a deep impression on our community. 105 copies of the new book distributed at name-your-price along with free digital downloads have put a progressive, challenging text into able hands, and the bold ideas within are helping to reignite and refresh our personal and collective commitment to activism for a fair and sustainable information society.

The workshops

After lunch, we hosted six afternoon workshop tracks (Open Data Startups, Open Smart Cities, Open Data in Science, Linked Open Data, Open Mobility Data, and Blockchain for Open Data), which you can read about, and download presentations from (as well as those of the keynotes), on the conference website. I made a short presentation on Frictionless Data (slides here) in the Science track, which showcased four projects working with, or fostering the development and use of, open data for scientific purposes – and will elaborate a little bit on this workshop here.

Marcel Salathé, our workshop lead and a founder of the open foodrepo.org initiative, demonstrated the open data science challenge platform crowdAI developed at EPFL, which connects data science experts and enthusiasts with open data to solve specific problems, through challenges. My talk was about containerization formats for open data, introducing Frictionless Data – which addresses this issue through simple specifications and software – and my work on supporting these standards in the Julia language. Donat Agosti spoke about Plazi, addressing the need of transforming scientific data from publications, books, and other unstructured formats into a persistent and openly accessible digital taxonomic literature. Finally, Rok Roškar introduced the Swiss Data Science Center and its Renku platform, a highly scalable & secure open software platform designed to foster multidisciplinary data (science) collaborations.

It was a privilege to take part, and I appreciated the learnings shared and eager discussions. The question came up of how many standardization initiatives it really takes, as well as whether and how improvements to the platform for data sharing really address the fundamental issues in science, and how the open data community can help improve access to high quality experimental data, reproducibility, and collaboration. We are following up on some of these questions already.

Open Data Student Award

And then it was, finally, time to hand over the Open Data Student Award, a project that took months of preparation, three days of 3D printing, hours of nail-bitingly intense jury duty, and only 15 minutes allowed to sum it all up. The jury team – consisting of Prof. Stefan Keller (CH Open), Andreas Amsler (OGD Canton of Zürich) and myself (Opendata.ch) – were impressed with the projects, each truly exemplary.


Every student and supervisor participating this year deserves recognition for making an effort to use, re-publish and to promote open data. In addition to being put on the big screen at the annual conference in St. Gallen and discussed by all the people gathered there, the projects are being given extra attention through community channels.

Congratulations to Jonas Oesch from FHNW Windisch, whose winning project The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Swiss Open Government Data educates readers in an exemplary way about open data, applying open source technical ingenuity and skillful design to a problem that is critical to the open data community.

The open data community is looking for answers to the question of how to better represent the diversity of datasets, putting them into new clothes, so to speak. The hitchhiker’s guide to Swiss Open Government Data is a project that points the way in such a direction.

Details about all the projects can be found on the official announcement. Additionally, we have shared some background and sources of the award open source for you to peruse. We are happy to get feedback and to hear your ideas for where to take the un/conference and award next year! Just drop us a line in the Open Knowledge Switzerland forum.

Wrapping up

As the football match got going that would eventually see our country rather unconvincingly exit the World Cup, we gave the floor to the people doing much of the day-to-day leg work to convince and support data providers to open up their troves to the Swiss public. Jean-Luc Cochard and Andreas Kellerhalls from the Swiss Federal Archives took turns to recap the situation in Switzerland.

The OGD strategy for 2019-2023 is being prepared in the Federal Department of Home Affairs, to be ratified by stakeholder departments over the summer. Our association will make a position statement with and on behalf of the user community in the coming months. The presentations demonstrated both a continued commitment to public service, as well as an admission of where we are coming short, an analysis of some of the many roadblocks and challenges technical, political and cultural, that are part of the strategy review. The next 4 years promise renewal, responsibility, and many lessons to apply across the board.

Photo credit: Ernie Deane, CC BY-SA 3.0

We know that not all the actors on the OGD stage are doing a great job, yet – and that to improve the status quo, we need to continue improving awareness and knowledge of the issues. Our role in facilitating cooperation across the digital divide and improving data literacy in Switzerland will be an important stepping stone to future success.

Pointing the way to such opportunities was the final keynote of the day, from Walter Palmetshofer (@vavoida), who joined us for the whole 24 hour marathon, and helped to end our conference with a bright acknowledgement of public interest: in good sportsmanship, international cooperation, and sustainable projects to build THINGS THAT MATTER.

Walter shared with us the most interesting results, learnings and statistics from the first highly successful years of the Open Data Incubator Europe (ODINE), and let us take home tantalizing glimpses into 57 inspiring startups – each of which could well be at home in Switzerland, to each of which we should be keen to open data, open doors, and learn from.