Open Data Day in Tanzania and Serbia: using open data to educate, inform and create stories

Authors: Rehema Mtandika (She Codes for change) and Katarina Kosmina (SEE ICT) – their biographies can be found below this post.

This blog is part of the event report series on International Open Data Day 2018. On Saturday 3 March, groups from around the world organised over 400 events to celebrate, promote and spread the use of open data. 45 events received additional support through the Open Knowledge International mini-grants scheme, funded by Hivos, SPARC, Mapbox, the Hewlett Foundation and the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The events in this blog were supported through the mini-grants scheme under the Equal Development and Open Mapping themes.

How we approached data

She Codes for Change trained 27 young girls aged 15-19 from Secondary Schools in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on the basic concepts of data visualization, Scratch and photography. We guided them to work on groups to identify social challenges and then use open data to create data-driven animation videos stories to educate the society on the challenge. Our aim was to inspire young girls to understand the concept of open data and innovation, and how to apply them to transform their imaginations into visual products, altogether as the mechanism to solve their societal problems. In the end, each group consisting of 5 members was guided to create their datasets, and worked upon their interested social challenge. The issues worked upon were violence against children, early marriages, gender based violence, school dropout and HIV/AIDS among adolescents. The final products were presented, and then uploaded on the She Codes for Change YouTube channel.

She Codes for Change Team with participants during Open Data Day

SEEICT/Startit is an NGO which has eight Startit centers across Serbia, with the aim of educating, empowering and connecting youth and the tech community in the country. Our plan to organize open mapping events in two smaller towns in Serbia got hindered by a lack of demand and local capacity for this type of activities. Instead, with the help of UNDP in Serbia, we managed to organize a Datathon in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, where teams worked with four mentors on data visualization projects using open datasets. The winning team mapped all elementary and high schools across Belgrade using a dataset from the Ministry of Education. They then scraped data about the locations of betting shops, given that Serbian law forbids betting shops to be closer than 200 meters from schools. This project resulted in a map of Belgrade showing over 70 betting shops which are breaking the law. Additionally, the other three teams also created visualizations which involved: optimizing the placement of police patrols and emergency vehicles for better response to car accidents, mapping bad driving habits across time and municipalities of Serbia, and showing the connectedness of public transportation in Belgrade.

Overcoming obstacles

Since the She Codes for Change proposal was not selected in the first round by the Open Data Team, our team had work on last minute preparations in order to have the logistics in place including sending invitation to schools, push and make follow up with their administrations for the timely permissions for students to attend.

Given that it was Startit’s first time organizing a Datathon and that we decided to make it a 12 hour challenge focused on visualization, we had no idea what could come out of it. In fact, we doubted if we would end up with even 1-2 working visualizations. Given the pilot/experimental nature of this event, plus the short time frame we had to plan and execute it, we struggled with social media promotion, using personal contacts and finding other ways to animate the Serbian IT community to join this endeavour. In addition, we knew that the datasets published by the government are often messy, incomplete, and inconsistent. Hence, there was a legitimate fear that the teams would end up spending most of those 12 hours cleaning data instead of analyzing and visualizing it. Fortunately, we had four fantastic mentors and the teams chose their datasets wisely, with only one team extensively struggling with their chosen datasets.

What did we learn?

She Codes for Change’s major lesson is that data finding and visualization is not a complex phenomenon if taught at an early stage. Since students are not taught much in school about data, many students in the training first thought that data is complicated and not important, however, after understanding the basic concepts and worked together to design a product for its visualization, they realized that data can help them and communities to address their challenges and make informed decisions.

Similar to the experience of She Codes for Change, as the Startit team, we realized how empowering creating data-based visualizations can be for teams participating in the Datathon – whether they’re high schoolers, students, or IT professionals. An even more striking realisation is the fact that messy government datasets can become stories which are able to inform the participants, reveal illegal activities or public policy options, and inspire new ideas.

How can we make data storytelling in Tanzania and Serbia more sustainable?

The She Codes for Change team has launched weekly Scratch trainings in Mid-March, which incorporates open data to help our beneficiaries to identify the challenges, and use the data/information available to design and produce products to satisfy the market needs. These trainings are carried out on Tuesday and Thursday of every week.

Startit’s blog team Startit.rs is currently in the process of writing blog posts about each of the Datathon participating team projects. We hope these stories will not only motivate the wider public to use open datasets, but also think beyond their messiness and incompleteness, as well as combine them with other data in innovative ways. Additionally, we hope future Datathons will continue to inspire data scientists and enthusiasts to use data visualization for storytelling.

Winning project in Startit’s Datathon – Realistic and abstract map of illegally placed betting shops in Belgrade

Data for stories, maps and education

These two initiatives in. Their outputs may have been different as She Codes for Change resulted in data driven animations, while Startit’s Datathon created data visualizations which sought to reveal illegalities, optimize policies or inform a wider audience.

She Codes for Change’s goal was achieved and as a result of the training they were able to create five animation videos that are data driven and informative on the gender, education and health matters. The Open Data Day training has also enabled us to create a platform of motivated young girls to create innovative solutions to the community challenges, hence providing an opportunity for them to raise their voices.

As the number of open datasets available to the public in Serbia increases, Startit plans to enable teams of young data scientists to use the power of data storytelling to continue informing and educating the wider public on the relevance and impact of data.

Author bio’s

Rehema Mtandika is a Director of Innovation at She Codes for Change. For over three years she has been working with youths and women in areas of gender empowerment through ICT and innovation, youth engagement in the social-economic development, access to quality education, access to data and information, good governance and peace and security.

Katarina Kosmina is the Programme Coordinator at SEE ICT, in charge of developing and organizing programs for 8 Startit Centers across Serbia. These programmes range from programming robots for girls or IoT workshops for high schoolers, thematic hackathons, meetups and workshops for individuals in the IT sector, as well as acceleration programs and data or IP clinics for startups. Our goal is to bring quality and free informal education, as well inspire and empower Serbian youth to enter the IT sector and continue expanding their knowledge and skills. Katarina’s passion for open data and data driven decision-making has led to an increased number in programs which aim at raising the level of data literacy in Serbia.