Three weeks ago, a most important serie of Open Data events took place in Mexico City. The biggest megacity of the whole American continent was chosen to hold the second edition regional conference for Open Data: ConDatos, after the success of the 2013 edition in Uruguay.
The main exhibition was enhanced by many parallel conferences, meetings, workshops and hackathons, with the objective of showing Latin American countries not only have joined the Open Data movement, but also have understood its potential and are decided to make use of it.
ConDatos: A new conference on its way to earn a global reputation
Apart from the well-known Open Knowledge Festival, very few are the Open Data events of this size, financially and logistically speaking. The organizers manifestly wanted to show the world that Latin America, and especially Mexico, had taken the Open Data turn.
The reunion took place in good standing cultural places: the Biblioteca Municipal de Mexico and the Cineteca Nacional, buildings that are big enough to gather 180 speakers, 1000 registered people, 15 sponsors (such as Google, IBM or Deloitte), and host 50 conferences on 2 days, according to the information provided by the organizers.
And these data don’t even take into account the numerous parallel events that took place during week. Workshops, Hackathons, “disconference” and other community meetings which gathered developers, lawyers, lobbyists, aid workers, entrepreneurs and public officials.
It clearly meant to be a complete review of the region’s challenges and opportunities, covering diversified themes such as economic development, mapping, journalism, privacy, health, environment, civic engagement, administrative transparency, international politics, data science or open licence.
The finest to exhibit regional potential on Open Data matters
ConDatos gathered most of the international “crème de la crème” on Open Data and Transparency (and also a bit of Open Source): Open Knowledge Foundation, Open Data Institute, Transparency International, Sunlight Foundation, Knight Foundation… even some high representatives of public administrations Such as the OECD, Secretaries for digital transformation of Mexico, Chile, Uruguay….
Obviously, all relevant local actors were here, such as Ciudadano Inteligente, Desarrollando América Latina, Argentina’s La Nación datablog, Wingu, and Codeando Mexico. Many of them attended an Open Knowledge Foundation meeting after the conference, the occasion to acknowledge the importance of the Open Data community in Latin America: the mere Argentinian chapter of the Open Knowledge Foundation claims about 500 volunteers, and many local groups were represented, such as Costa Rica, Salvador, Mexico, and Brazil.
Codeando Mexico, the organization responsible for editing the first Open Data website in Mexico, told us about some of the very innovative features of their portal, showing a civil society initiative can be an interesting alternative to governmental portals. Codeando Mexico’s portal uses the OKFN’s open source software: CKAN, and integrates two made-in-google tools highly appreciated by any data user: Open Refine and Google Big Query (analysis of massive data).
ConDatos 2014 has definitely shown that Latin America is bursting with energy when it comes to Open Data matters. The event is likely to earn a reputation after such a demonstration, and become a reference on the global level. Which will see next year in Santiago de Chile, where the 2015 edition will take place.
Beyond the general optimism, reluctance to transparency and lack of startups
If there’s clearly a shared optimism about the numerous Open Data initiatives and their potential to bring change and innovation, a few remarks can be made both about active transparency (governments intentionally liberating the data) and passive transparency (citizens asking for public information).
About active transparency first, most of Government’s open data portals register only a few datasets. Salvador, for instance, only has 57 datasets on its portal (as a comparison, there are more than 13.000 datasets published in France, and more than 150.000 on the US portal). Chile does a bit better with about 1200 datasets, but Brazil’s 350 datasets don’t look impressive considering the size of the country and the size of its administration. Argentina seems once again to be ahead: not only is has a furnished national open data website, but two of its biggest cities have one: Buenos Aires (26 datasets) and Bahia Blanca (200 datasets).
About passive transparency, a lot of the participants complained about the difficulty to access to public data, even where a transparency law exists. The administration regularly shows reluctance, through excessive paperwork or excessively long processes. In some countries, Open Data advocates even declare to fear retaliations if they ask for compromising data.
Beside, startups seemed underrepresented. Although there were a few ones like Junar, Socrata and Grupo Inco, almost every speaker was representing or an NGO, or a public entity, giving the impression that Open Data was only a dialogue between civil society and governments, leaving the private sector world out of it.
In Europe, startups such as ScraperWiki in the UK, Data Publica in France or Spazio Dati in Italy helped shaping the Open Data environment of their respective countries. We can only hope that a data startups movement will start to grow in Latin America, bringing their piece to the edification of a productive Open Data environment.