My experience building a 100% Open Source based Open Data platform

During the great OKFest 2014, we were lucky to re-encounter the folks from EWMI and Open Development Cambodia (ODC), a non-for-profit organization advocating for transparency that we could get to know during the Open Steps Journey. Since 2011, the team at ODC has been doing an amazing work sharing data with journalists, researchers and human rights activists so they can count with openly licensed information to support their activities in the south-east Asian country. At OKFest, they told us about EWMI’s Open Development Initiative and their plans of what now has become the Open Development Mekong project, an open data and news portal providing content about 5 countries of the Mekong region in South-east Asia. Back then, they were looking for somebody that could give a hand for conceiving and implementing the platform. That’s how I got engaged on this challenging project that has been keeping me busy for the last 9 months.

I’m writing this article to share my personal experience participating in a 100% Open Source project, within an agile and extremely collaborative environment whose outcome in terms of information, knowledge and code are meant to be reused by the community.

The project’s requirements and its architecture

ODC’s site already features lots of information, datasets and visualizations. The team has done a great work getting the most out of WordPress, the CMS software the site is build upon. However, since the main expectations for this new iteration of the platform were to host much more machine-readable data and expose it through both web interface and API, a specific framework for storing, managing and exposing datasets was needed. After analysing the current options out there, we decided to implement an instance of CKAN, which is an Open Source solution for building Open Data portals. Coordinated by Open Knowledge and strongly maintained by a great community of worldwide developers, it was definitely a good choice. Being Open Source not onlymeans that we could deploy it for free, but we could use plenty of extensions developed by the community and get our questions answered by the developers at the #CKAN channel on IRC or directly on the github repositories where the project is maintained.

gen_ii_architecture_Analogue to ODC, the OD Mekong project should present a great amount of news, data and visualizations in a comprehensive manner, allowing users to search within the large amount of contents and sharing them on social networks or among friends. Taking in consideration that the editorial team had already expertise working with WordPress and the fact that it is a widely used, community supported Open Source CMS, we went ahead and deployed a multi-site network instance, featuring one site for the whole region ( Mekong ) and one site for each of the countries ( Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar ). The theme chosen for the front-end, called JEO and developed specifically for Geo-Journalism sites, provides with a set of great features to geo-localize, visualize, and share news content. Since OD Mekong’s team works intensively with geo-referenced information ( also an instance of Geoserver is part of the architecture), JEO proved to be a great starting point and thanks to the work of its developers, lots of features could be used out-of-the-box.

To be able to facilitate the complex work-flow of OD Mekong’s editorial team, many WordPress plug-ins were used for aggregating content automatically, presenting featured information in a visual way or for allowing users to provide feedback. Also, we developed WPCKAN, a WordPress plug-in which allows to pull/push content between CKAN and WordPress, the main elements of OD Mekong’s architecture. Although is extensively used across the whole OD Mekong site, this plug-in has been developed generically, so other folks out there can re-use it in similar scenarios.

Working in a collaborative environment

Since the beginning, OD Mekong’s intention is to become a platform where multiple organizations from the region, which share common goals, can work together. This is not an easy task and has conditioned many of the decisions taken during the conception and development.

This collaborative process has been taking place (and will continue) at different levels:

  • Organizations participate on the content creation process. Once credentials are granted, datasets can be uploaded to the CKAN instance and news, articles or reports to the specific country sites. In order to ensure the quality of the contents, a vetting system has been conceived which allows site administrators to review them before they get published.
  • Developers from the community can contribute on the development of the platform. All code repositories are available on Open Development Mekong’s github site and provisioning scripts based on Vagrant and Ansible, both open source technologies, are available for everyone to reproduce OD Mekong’s architecture with just one command.
  • Since this is an interregional endeavour, all components of the architecture need to have multilingual capabilities. For that, many contents and pieces of the software needed to be translated. Within OD Mekong, the localization process relied on Transifex, a web-based translation platform that gives teams the possibility to translate and review software collaboratively. Although not open source anymore, Transifex is free for Open Source projects. I would like to highlight here that the OD Mekong team contributed to the translation of CKAN version 2.2 in Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese languages. Bravo!!

It is also very important to remark the benefits of documenting every process, every work-flow, every small tutorial in order to share the knowledge with the rest of the team, thus avoiding having to communicate the same information repeatedly. For that, since the beginning of the development process, a Wiki had been set up to store all the knowledge around the project. Currently, the contents on OD Mekong’s WIKI are still private but after being reviewed information will be made publicly available soon, so stay tuned!

An amazing professional ( but also personal ) experience

Leaving the technical aspect and going more into human values. I can only say that for me, working in this project has marked a milestone in my professional career. I have had the pleasure to work with an amazing team from which I have learned tons of new things. And not only related to software development but also System administration, Human Rights advocacy, Copyright law, Project management, Communication and a large etcetera. All within the best work atmosphere, even when deadlines were approaching and the github issues started to pile up dramatically :) .

This is why I want to thank Terry Parnell, Eric Chuk, Mishari Muqbil, HENG Huy Eng, CHAN Penhleak, Nikita Umnov and Dan Bishton for the great time and all the learnings.

Learn more

As part of the ambassador programme at Infogr.am, I hosted yesterday a skill-sharing session where I explain, this time on video, my experience within this project. Watch it to discover more…

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Open Data in the Philippines: Best practices from disaster relief and transportation mapping

While attending Geeks on a Beach last month, we also spent some time in Manila to visit a few labs and agencies, and had several discussions on the state of open-data in the Philippines.

Quick reminder: open-data is a recent trend for government, companies and institutions to release their datasets freely, so that users, developers, citizens or consumers can make use of it and create new services (check FixmyStreet for a “citizen 2.0″ stint or FlyonTime for a more commercial approach).

The Philippines, a 100m population country we have been exploring, hosts quite a few very good applications of open-data, and they also have a strong support from the government side to do so. Here’s some of their creations, with the explanations of Ivory Ong, Outreach Lead of Open Data for the Department of Budget and Management of the government of the Philippines.

Key milestones of the open-data in the Philippines

The major milestone for the open-data in the Philippines was the official launch of data.gov.ph in January 16, 2014 after a 6-month development period. “We have had 500,000 page views as of June this year. We published 650 datasets at the time and had infographics (static data visualizations and interactive dashboards) already which was the unique selling point of our data portal. We were able to push out an additional 150 datasets by May 5, 2014″, says Ivory.

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The team also lead two government-organized hackathons: #KabantayNgBayan (on budget transparency) and Readysaster (on disaster preparedness) to build awareness on the use and benefits of open government data. Another milestone is having a Data Skills Training for civil society organizations, media, and government to build capacity with data scraping, cleaning, and visualizing.

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“Back in June, we likewise conducted our first Open Data training at a city level (Butuan City, Agusan del Norte) where local civil society organizations and local government units created offline visualizations from data disclosed by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) via the Full Disclosure Policy Portal“, she adds.

Mapping the transports in Metro Manila with students embedded on all routes

While talking with Ivory and Levi Tan Ong, one of the co-founders of By Implication, a digital agency, I’ve heard about a quite funny story.

Just as in so many emerging markets, the transportation system is organically grown. Except for the MRT or subway systems where an official map helps to navigate the city, most routes by local bus (dubbed jeepneys in the Philippines, but one can think of Nairobi’s matutu as well) are unwritten. People just know them, stations are all over the road and nowhere at the same time.

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So the Department of Transport launched two initiatives to solve the issue. First, by putting students with GPS plotting software in all the jeepneys and local buses to map their actual routes, and then by releasing the data to have the communities of developers build an app for that. “From the little that I know, this was done because Department of Transport and Communication and its attached agencies have clashing statistics on the exact number of routes”, adds Ivory.

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Creative agency By Implication then won the Open Community Award at the Philippines Transit App Challenge, with Sakay.ph, an app which helps you to know which combination of transportation to use to go from A to B… quite convenient for the foreigner I am in the gigantic Metro Manila area! The app is recording about 50 000 requests per month since inception, and if there’s still some glitches on the data, it’s the first real online map and direction service for Manila.

Where is the Foreign Aid for disaster going? Open Reconstruction will tell

The same agency is also behind Open Reconstruction, an open-data platform which tracks where theaid money after typhoon Yolanda hit the archipelago in November 2013.

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It’s not just a storytelling of where funds are allocated, as Levi says: “Several towns asked for money to rebuild infrastructure and housing, but at that time, it was a long process in 5 steps at least to get funding, and all was in paper. So what we provide is a digitalisation of the aid process. First, by streamlining the process of applying for money and making all steps digital, traceable, and in a second step, by releasing this data to the public to increase transparency of the overall aid effort”.

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The connection between the agency’s work and the government open-data team seems to work on the topic of foreign aid. Ivory adds that “Context at the time was that there were a lot of news releases saying that humanitarian aid was coming in specifically for Yolanda. There were assumptions that government agencies might be getting funds yet are not using it for its intended purpose. When we finally launched the site and finished the scoping of the information-goods-cash flow [see infographic from the FAITH site below], we found out that only a small portion went to government anda vast majority went to multilateral agencies such as the UN and the Philippine Red Cross. Public demand died down because of it”.

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Open Reconstruction is the other half of what the open-data team wanted FAiTH data to be connected to: how the money was spent and if it was used for the intended purpose. It gives anyone, by bringing data to light, a chance to be a watchdog to hold government to account.

What’s next for open-data in the Philippines? Training, training, training

In just a few months, the open-data community did hit quite a few convincing milestones, both with government support and the involvement of the community of developers. There’s still a lot to do, as Ivory tells us, because as in any digitalisation, training, change management and making sure the administration and the public understand and accept this new policy is key.

“I guess this goes back to our first time to run the training to create offline data visualizations back in June. Local government unit representatives who were intimately familiar with local budget data had an easier time to create visualizations and explain it. After the crash course training for free online tools they can use, we went into a workshop proper where they select PDF files from the Full Disclosure Policy Portal (based on the city/municipality they lived in) and proceeded to discuss with their groupmates on how best to visualize it using colored paper and pentel pens.

These actors at a local level are important since they serve as potential information intermediaries who can communicate data into digestible stories that citizens can relate to based on their needs. Citizens who reside in remote or rural areas and are not familiar with government jargon/processes can be informed and empowered if intermediaries exist.

From our initial experience, I think I can propose 4 important must-have skills for intermediaries:

  • technological capacity (i.e. use of ICT) to clean/structure/visualize data
  • good understanding of government vocabulary and process (for data analysis and interpretation)
  • deep knowledge of local / community needs and priorities
  • communication skills, particularly storytelling with data

The last skill is important because stories are easier to understand versus listening to technical jargon. Filipinos are very much into knowing hat’s what in the lives of family, friends, celebrities, and politicians. Stories trump statistics in this case so learning how to narrate what dataset/s mean can be more useful. If Open Data is to make an impact in the lives of citizens, it must be in a language that is relatable and understandable”

Written by Martin Pasquier from Innovation Is Everywhere

Software Freedom Day 2014 celebrated in Nepal

Software Freedom Day (SFD) is a worldwide celebration of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). In Nepal, FOSS Nepal Community has been regularly organizing and celebrating Software freedom day since 2005. From 2007 to 2009, for three consecutive years, FOSS Nepal’s SFD celebration was recognized as the best event in the world. This year also with an aim to enrich the open communities rather than outreach upon the Free and Open Source movement, FOSS Nepal Community organized Software Freedom Day 2014, Kathmandu at Trade Tower (Elite Hall), Thapthali, Kathmandu, Nepal on the date of 20th September 2014. The way of celebration was completely different from the past year software freedom day. This year it was an half day event, where more than 14 different open communities who are currently working under open philosophy gather at the same place and the schedule of the event was also so simple.

Here goes the schedule of an Event.

Communities Like PHP Developers Nepal, Google Developer Group (GDG) Kathmandu, Robotic Association of Nepal (RAN), Wikipedia (Nepali), Mozilla Nepal, Open Street Map (OSM) Nepal, Open Knowledge Nepal, Ruby Developers Nepal, Google Business Group (GBG) Kathmandu, WordPress Nepal, Chitwanix, Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) Nepal and many more was playing an celebrating partners role for this year Software Freedom Day. Event was Supported by Nepal Government Department of Information Technology, Rooster Logic and Computer Association of Nepal (CAN).

As Per the schedule event was officially started by the host Ms. Shristi Baral and Mr. Rajan Kandel, not exactly in the same time according to schedule but 15 minute late because of some management issues. After a short introduction of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Nepal Community and Software Freedom Day 2014, they invited Mr. Sagar Chhetri, first presenter of the event, who was there to give presentation on Chitwanix OS.

Mr. Sagar Chhetri utilized his total 15 minutes by defining what is Chitwanix OS, Chitwanix Student Partners (CSP), Chitwanix Associate Program etc. He said that Chitwanix community is slowly growing and going to make vast impact in the coming future. After his presentation about Chitwanix the event host called Mr. Saroj Dhakal to give presentation and short talk on Nepali Linux & Nirvikalpa. Saroj Dhakal started his presentation form the question: How many of here know about Nepali Linux? And most of the hands inside the hall were raised because Nepali Linux was that first Linux based Nepali operating system which was developed with the help of Nepal Government and Madhan Bhandari Pustaklaya. He said that Nepali Linux is going to reborn again and new version will be released soon. He also gave an short introduction about Nirvikalpa “Nirvikalpa is an collection of Open Source software which can be used at Microsoft Windows too”.

After Saroj Dhakal presentation on Nepali Linux and Nirvikalpa, Host of an event called Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) Nepal Team for their introduction and presentation. LTSP project was lead by the students of Kathmandu University (KU) and all of them where an active member of their college open source community named Kathmandu University Open Source Community (KUOSC). Presenter shows their progress on LTSP and some images.

Now, It was a time for the presentation of Wikipedia (Nepali). Mr. Ganesh Poudel one of the active Wikimedians of Nepal was called on stage for the presentation. His presentation was like progress report and story sharing. He shares how Nepali Wikipedia community is growing day by day and he also gave an open invitation to all participant of Software Freedom Day 2014, to be volunteer of an Nepali Wikipedia and request everyone for the help.

Presentation session continues, after 15 minutes presentation of Nepali Wikipedia, Host called Mr. Nikesh Balami from Open Knowledge Nepal to give short introduction of Open Knowledge Community. Nikesh Balami topic was focused on Open Data and CKAN. “CKAN is a tool for making open data websites, It helps you manage and publish collections of data”. He also explain the future plans of Open Knowledge Nepal and shows different example website, which was made by using CKAN tools.

Host of an event called Mr. Nirab Pudasaini from Open Street Map (OSM) Nepal after Nikesh Balami presentation. Mr. Pudasaini define what is Open Street Map (OSM) at first and also define how student, company, researcher etc. can use OSM for their project. He explain how Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL) is supporting Open Street Map (OSM) Nepal and he specially thanks student because most of the student where helping them for mapping. He shows his interest of taking Open Street Map (OSM) Nepal outside of Kathmandu valley.

Event was running is the cool way but everyone get shocked suddenly when the host called team of PHP Developer Nepal because most of the participant was unknown about the group. The team started their presentation by defining how PHP language is helping to keep web secure. They also gave a short demo on how we can enjoy and utilized all software if it was made in web.

Now, the turn was of Mozilla Nepal and representative of Mozilla, Mr. Surit Aryal was there for the presentation. He gave a presentation on the topic “Moz Stumbler” and “Mozilla Location Services”. He introduced what kinds of project it is and also make clear how public can get benefits from it.

Again, after the presentation of Mozilla Nepal, Mr. Sakin Shrestha representative of WordPress Nepal was called on the stage for the presentation. He shares how WordPress Nepal is getting global recognition and also discuss a little bit about Wordcamp Nepal. He says that number of WordPress users in Nepal is increasing and suggest participant to use WordPress CMS which is free and secure.

Turning and interesting point of the event came because it was a time of Ruby Developer Nepal presentation. Bunch of team was there wearing “I Love Ruby” t-shirt. The team gave an introductory presentation about what does Ruby Developer Nepal do, what kinds of programming language is Ruby, what are its important etc. Everyone inside the hall was listening their presentation because the way they present was very unique. They suggested different link for the visit.

After, Ruby presentation host of an event called Mr. Bhupal Sapkota from Google Developer Group (GDG) Kathmandu. Mr. Sapkota defines what kinds of event does GDG organized and how to join GDG group. He also called his teammates Mr. Saroj Dhakal on the stage again to give presentation about Google Business Group (GBG) Nepal. He shares GBG journey, How GBG was started and what kinds of platform is it.

Final presentation of event was about Open Hardware and Mr. Dipesh Kharel from Robotic Association of Nepal (RAN) was called on the stage to give a short talk on it. He first defines how robotic can help us, and also make clear why Robotic Association of Nepali (RAN) represent Open Hardware. He said that in Nepal it was really difficult to work on hardware but nowadays the people working on Open Hardware is increasing.

With that last presentation on Open Hardware both the host Mr. Rajan Kandel and Ms. Shristi Baral handover the MIC in the hand of President of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Nepal community, Mr. Subir B. Pradhanang and says thanks to all participant for joining the event. Then Mr. Pradhanang introduced the Software Freedom Day 2014 organizing team (Only new faces) and thanks them for organizing such an wonderful event.

Then again he also handover the MIC to Mr. Hempla Shrestha for the Panel Discussion and Open Discussion. During the panel discussion everyone changes their sitting arrangement and made one big circle by using chairs. Everyone introduced themselves one by one at first round of the discussion. In the second round of the panel discussion community were asked to shared their view, What kinds of problem are they facing inside the community, what are their future planning etc.
At the last round of the Discussion Session, participant were asked to come up with new ideas, which they want to work in the coming future and must say that round was brilliant. Six participant present their ideas and other interested participant who like that ideas joins them. Hope they will be working till the last on the same ideas in the coming future.

Event was ended and everyone moved for the lunch.
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Meeting @ Mozilla Factory, Tokyo, Japan

When it comes to Open Source, it is mandatory to think about Mozilla. Both a company, creator of the well-known non-commercial web browser, and a foundation, promoting free and Open Source software; Mozilla is one of the big players in today’s internet scene.

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Some months ago, we experienced about the creation of the Mozilla Factory in Tokyo, a place where people can practice and learn Open Source creation. Straight away, we put it on the list of projects we definitely had to cover.

 Since the Mozilla Japan team changed its office last March, a new space had to be created which reflects the principles of openness that the foundation supports. As the Mozilla creative researcher Noriatsu Kudo shared with us, the space welcomes saturdays everyone with creative ideas and offers a great workplace with lots of equipment in order to put them into action. Players and Tutors (middle, high school and college students) work together with Mentors (members of the Mozilla team and university professors) in several ongoing projects. We could see on the spot several cool concepts for the reinvention of the mouse, such as the warm-hugging one, another for working out while browsing and our favourite one; a mouse that stops functioning after too long period of use, perfect for workaholics.

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Another remarkable element of this great place is its Open Source furnitures which have been designed through a collaboration with the studio NOSIGNER. From tables, through plant pots to lamps, the bright space features smart objects that can be replicated and repurposed by everyone since the drawings are available online for free.

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But this is not all! Mozilla’s new project is also worth to mention: the MozBus, a refurbished camping van turned into a nomadic web factory. Equipped with a satellite dish, power-generator and other technology items, the MozBus brings the web to remote places in Japan. On its tours, roving workshops are conducted with the purpose of raising awareness and teaching Open Source to those that cannot afford a trip to the headquarters in Tokyo.

In its recent history, the country had to face tremendous natural disasters and disaster management is also one of the main missions of this great project. The MozBus is ready to drive to affected areas and provide internet infrastructure while working as a mobile hotspot and data collection station or mobile research centre.

If you happen to travel to Tokyo, we definitely encourage you to follow Mozilla Japan and to check their event calendar. We wish we could stay longer to enjoy this inspiring place!

International Open Data Day @ Kyoto, Japan

Map Open Data day

Do you know what happens on the 22nd February? If you do, you may have participated in one of the 145 events taking place worldwide for the International Open Data Day (ODD). This date „is a gathering of citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption open data policies by the world’s local, regional and national governments“. Targeted not only for developers or designers but for anyone willing to dive in the topic, the ODD is a great opportunity to get involved with the movement which is already changing the way citizens and government interact.

With the only constraints that the events should be open and take place on the 22.02, local communities are free to shape the form and contents as they want. Since we are currently in Japan, we looked at the list of the 33 events in the country and decided to attend the one in Kyoto.

DSCF5876There, a small group of volunteers (coming from the public and private sector such as members of the OpenStreetMap Foundation) initiated for the first time in the Kansai region a session of the Open Data Day. The event was created and managed via Facebook and took place in the coworking space of the Research Park Machiya Studio. More than 40 participants, a mix of all ages and professions from the surrounding region, were gathered by the wish to learn together how to digitally share knowledge and make use of it. OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia were on the agenda and the attendees were separated in four groups to explore four different areas close to the venue. Because Kyoto is the ancient capital city of Japan and counts with numerous historical places, the central theme was to search for old buildings and places of interest in order to report them on the both collaborative platforms and thus extend the quantity and quality of the data already available. After finding out the basics and downloading the Pushpin OSM mobile editor, each group could go out and start working.

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Today´s event was a great environment to research about the general status of Open Data in Japan. If a program for Building e-Government was launched from 2003, the first initiatives were not implemented before 2008, when a public CIO forum was set up and these efforts led afterwards to the creation of the so-called Open Government Strategy in 2012. This development proved to be extremely relevant after the devastating earthquake in 2011. Indeed, thanks to the short-term coordination and reaction possibilities that existing data (partly real-time) facilitated, the damage could be effectively reduced. Actually, disaster management is one of the main focus within the japanese strategy regarding public data.

Fast forward to last year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication released Datameti, a test platform for sharing governmental data. However, this was not done in an open way (copyright licensed) so it was December 2013 when the official central open data platform Data.go.jp was launched, also in beta version but this time using Creative Commons licenses. On this platform, built using OKFN’s Open Source framework CKAN, users can find datasets categories by the different ministries and agencies releasing them.

Although there are still many issues to be solved, such as statistical information regarding budget and expenditures still being released under copyright, the overall situation of the Open Data movement in Japan is good. A prolific future is certainly asserted by the engagement of organisations and citizens all over the country, like those taking part in this year’s Open Data Day.

Workshop @ DimSumLabs, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

DSCF5384On our single date in Hong Kong, we were welcomed by the members of another hackerspace, what made us think about the great encounters we had during the first two months we spent in Europe. Dim Sum Labs (DSL) is located on the Hong Kong island, surrounded by a large number of incredibly high skyscrapers. A small but very cozy space full of tools and electronic devices serves as a meeting point and working space for a group of around thirty hackers/makers. DSL hosts regular events like Hackjams, Free Software development evenings and workshops where everyone can learn about electronics, build creative things and have a good time meeting people. Running our workshop there was possible thanks to the help of Open Data Hong Kong (ODHK), a group of passionate individuals that joined forces one year ago and is actively promoting Open Data in the HK region, building a network and organising events around the topic. Our session took place as part of their regular Meet series.

As ODHK has already done a great job making awareness on the benefits of Open Data, we decided not to present our usual beginners targeted workshop and prepared new contents that would be more suitable for the attendees. On the video below, you can see our recap of the most exciting projects we have discovered till now.

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/86753939[/vimeo]

DSCF5389The open discussion following our presentation was extremely interesting, probably because of Hong Kong’s unique context. Since centuries, the archipelago has been a cultural melting pot and nowadays shows a very open character in areas such as culture, demographics and economy. Since its retrocession to China in 1997, Hong Kong owns a special status: the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. This guarantees a certain independency regarding Open Data/Open Government policies that allows the existence of an Open Data platform although there is no, as in mainland, Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA). The HK administration shows itself quite active promoting openness, organises Hackathons and sponsors competitions to encourage the use of the released data. Also, a governmental initiative called Digital21 ensures that public information gets released in machine-readable formats by the time it is created, similar as it happens in the US/UK.

Although our stay in HK was quite short, we have learned a lot from the activists of this amazing metropole. We would like to thank again ODHK for their collaboration and wish them a lot of success on their future activities, specially finding a great space for their headquarters!

Slides of the presentation
Slides of the presentation

Meeting @ Mekong River Commission, Vientiane, Lao PDR

mrc1 For our last meeting in Southeast Asia, we headed to the Lao PDR capital to document the Data Portal developed and maintained by the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS). The agency represents an inter-governmental initiative between four (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam) of the six countries located in the Mekong Basin which, quoting from its website; acts as a joint management of shared water resources and sustainable development of the Mekong River.

The focus of our meeting, held with two members of the IT Team, was to discover more about its Data and Information Services Portal launched in 2005. The MRCS Portal is the access point for data, information and services provided by MRCS via the Internet. It provides access to quality assured datasets, atlases, model setup, model results, Google Earth overview, map services etc. On this platform, built using Open Source technologies, real time water level and quality data among other Mekong Basin related information are available as interactive maps, reports and multimedia contents. As we could experience, the data is being aggregated from different governmental agencies, MRCS Programmes, but also automatically transferred from a network of 47 hydro-meteorological stations within the region, which continuously feed “near” real-time information to the system.

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Users can register for free to access the data. Daily, about 40 to 90 visitors from national agencies, research institutes, academia, students and companies accessed the Portal since 2011 when the redesigned Portal was launched. Only registered users who had signed a license agreement can download or purchase data sets. Compared to Open Data platforms, there are restrictions when it comes to downloading and using the information. Depending on the categorisation of the contents, some fees may apply. All users, except internal ones who are national agencies, are required to pay for handling services. The data are owned by the countries, and they are happy to share them among the member countries, but not all the data are meant to be readily available on the website.

Along this line, we could discuss with MRCS’s IT-Team about the benefits of releasing the data in an open manner. As the intention of the portal is to make the data available in a usable way, choosing open licenses for the content would contribute to the goals behind it and might be implemented in the near future. Although, this decision requires a common agreement between MRC’s member countries.

Talking about the future, the team revealed us some interesting new features the platform will offer with an upcoming update. Raw text will be replaced by XML as the chosen format to release the data, users will be able to combine multiple layers on the interactive maps and the last research results about climate change will be soon available increasing the number of datasets.

Back to the context in Laos, there is, as we already experienced in Cambodia and Thailand, no official Open Data platform. Neither we could find any other data portal or similar projects during our research in this country.

Workshop @ Transparency International Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

DSCF4416On our last intervention in this busy week in Phnom Penh, we were hosted by Transparency International Cambodia. The office has been created in 2010 and, as the organisation does worldwide, its team works actively in the south-east asian country promoting transparency and fighting against corruption. A practical example of their activities consists on the adoption of the platform bribespot.com for campaigning against bribery, sadly a recurrent subject in the cambodian daily life.

The session was a great opportunity to discuss with the team and around thirty attendees (mostly students and Human Rights advocates) about how data and its proper visualisation can be used to explore society issues. Methodologies and tools for collecting and sharing information were topics that the participants were interested to learn more about. Along this line OpenDataKit was presented by one of them; an open-source suite of tools that helps organizations author, field, and manage mobile data collection solutions. Also, OKFN’s project CKAN could be a choice for those organisations willing to make the step and release their data following the open definition.

DSCF4423Although the concept of Open Data was in general not well known among the participants, fact is that the way they are already working shares a lot of the principles behind it. A big attention was raised on the practical part, where we went hands on with some online visualisation tools: CartoDB and Datawrapper.

Closing our stay in Cambodia where we met many enthusiastic Human Rights advocates and activists, we head now north and invite you to stay tuned for the next steps.

Slides of the presentation
Slides of the presentation

Workshops @DMC and @GIZ, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

DSCF4211The Department of Media and Communication (DMC) of the Royal University of Phnom Penh is the single education centre across Cambodia providing a training ground for journalists and communication practitioners. The director and faculty members have a big interest in Data journalism and we were asked to present the topic at the weekly guest lecture last friday. We started researching Data journalism some weeks ago when we documented journalism++, so this invitation was a great opportunity to extend our presentation with new material and discuss with around sixty DMC cambodian students, from all of the four courses that compose their studies. The interest they showed was great and although the topic is new, the session was very constructive.

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DSCF4244But the day was not over yet, since we conducted another session in the afternoon. This time for the Civil Peace Service (CPS) group of the GIZ, the german national agency for international cooperation which focus its work in developing countries. The CPS team in Cambodia partners with cambodian civil society and government institutions to carry out outreach and education about the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The expectations of this smaller group of attendees were basically to learn more about tools and methodologies available for them to work more efficiently with the data they collect. Visualisation and management of data was also a central point of the debate. After speaking about the insights of existing Open Data platforms, we experienced that NGOs in Phnom Penh working on similar issues could actually profit from a common database to share documentation. Participants agreed that such a solution could facilitate collaborative work and the way their generated contents get published.

Slides of the presentation
Slides of the presentation

Meeting @ Open Development Cambodia , Phnom Penh, Cambodia

ODC-LogoIf you happen to search for Open Data initiatives in Cambodia, Open Development Cambodia is definitely going to appear on the top of the results list. Started in 2011 as a project under the activities of the EWMI and on the way to be registered as a NGO, ODC represents the most active effort in the South-East-Asian country to collect, use and share data for social improvement.

With a strong philosophy of objectivity and independence, the team does not focus on advocacy in particular sectors nor does it pursue any agenda, other than aggregating and offering information to the public in easily accessible forms. Self-defined as an intersection between NGO, media platform, and think-thank, ODC concentrates its resources on aggregating data (which necessarily must be already available somewhere in the public domain) and creating objective briefings, maps, and graphics available for everyone to download, analyse and re-use. Sources are quoted and even the methodology they employed to create these contents is transparent and can be found on their site. That is what can be understood as an open way of working.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-01-08 um 15.35.44Among other contents, we learned about their forest cover page. At the heart of the page are animated forest cover change maps developed based on analysis of satellite imagery released in public domain by NASA. These maps and accompanying graphics provides information about the extent and rate of Cambodia’s forest cover change over the past 40 years. This and other information found on the site has been already used by NGOs, bloggers, journalists, researchers, grassroots groups, rights advocates and even government technocrats and investors to inform their research, reporting, analysis, and planning. As an example, the local rights-focused website SITHI.org uses maps from ODC as base layers on which they add other analysis. An interesting statistic: since its creation, their website has counted visits from users from almost every country and state of the world, although the majority of users are Cambodians.

All this, in a country whose administration is not particularly supportive when it comes to releasing data to the public domain or sharing information with its citizens. It is important to note that there is currently no Freedom of Information laws in Cambodia, even an attempt to pass a draft law was rejected in January 2013. At the time we are writing these lines, there is no Open Data platform initiated or planned by the government.

PRAJ2Jul2013bHowever, the remarkable work of organisations such as ODC and the presence of a newly created local chapter of the OKFN are examples of the current will to fill the gap and realise a positive development of openness and transparency for Cambodia. Talking about what is to come, ODC team will add interesting new features on their platform, such as and API, to improve user experience and more effective access to their aggregated datasets. The site will also be available in Khmer language within the next few months.