Day one started with sticky notes and a giant map of Latin America. People jostled playfully pushing each other as they raced to post up initiatives and projects happening in their country. Abre Lat Am, a one-day unconference on open data in Latin America, had begun.
Created in Uruguay in 2013, Abre Lat Am brings together coders, academics, activists and journalists to discuss what is going on with open data in their region. They pose questions, try to find solutions and form strong networks with like-minded people. It is this spirit of collaboration that is key to Abre Lat Am’s success.
Participating in small groups, the 300 attendees in this year’s event worked together to come up with answers to some of the region’s more puzzling questions. How do we get government to be more transparent? How do we get citizens to be involved in open data? What can we do with data once we have it?
Leaning forward in their Mexican lounge chairs, one group discussed open government and the importance of building trust between politicians and civil society, a common issue throughout Latin America. Without trust, they concluded, it was going to be difficult to get both sides to fully participate in open data initiatives.
In another corner of the room, people talked about how difficult it was to obtain access to open data, even in countries with the freedom of information act. Activists and journalists explained how they often have to wait months for data to be handed over and even then data is often dirty or difficult to read.
Despite these obstacles, there was a general consensus that interest in open data in the region was growing. And there was a real excitement about how open data could be used to find solutions to common problems in health, transportation, government transparency and the environment. Alliances were formed. Activists worked together to try and find answers to funding problems, as well as maximizing outreach. People working on parliamentary transparency met with like-minded organizations from the region to exchange experiences, problems and suggestions.
And then there were the projects. Latin America is a hot bed of innovation with organizations using open data and technology to tackle common everyday problems. Slash Roots, the civil tech organization based in Jamaica, recently used open data to address the issue of stolen livestock in the country. Gobierno Facil, a Mexican company, makes government data more accessible and user friendly, while Ojo Publico uses data within their journalism to report on transparency in Peru.
Civil society organizations weren’t the only ones participating, government officials had their fair share of questions too. Con Datos, a regional conference which took place on day two, aimed to consolidate information on open data in Mexico and create networks within the open data community, by bringing together experts from academia, government, business and civil society organizations.
In a series of talks throughout the event, government officials discussed how they could create greater interaction between themselves and society. Those working with open data in government institutions asked participants how government bodies could encourage citizens to ask for and use data. And governments from around Latin America exchanged experiences on the process of opening up data. Participants in both days expressed a need for greater communication and participation in the field of open data.
Both Con Datos and Abre Lat Am posed more questions than answers, but one thing is certain, open data is on the rise in Latin America. With participation in Abre Lat Am growing many are already intrigued to see what next year’s event in Chile will bring.