Interview with Diego May, co-founder of Junar @ Palo Alto, USA

Do you know what the Open Data platform maintained by the chilean government has in common with its analog from the city of Cupertino in the USA or the argentinian city of Bahia Blanca? Besides obviously hosting Open Data for users to download, they are all built with Junar.

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From governments, through NGOs to businesses, Junar offers those willing to share data a great technological solution with all the wished features.

In these 5 years since Junar was founded by Diego May and Javier Pajaro, the list of organisations using the Open Data platform (most of them from the public sector in USA and Latin America) has considerably grown. That makes Diego in the right position to tell us what are public administrations expecting from such a platform, what they want to achieve with it and the general awareness towards Open Data in Latin America. Get the details in the following interview:

1.­ Hola Diego. We already know you from the past Databootcamp in Montevideo but our readers might not. So, can you please introduce yourself and tell us what Junar is?

My name is Diego May, I am co-founder of Junar. My co-founder (Javier Pájaro, CTO) and I started this company 5 years ago as we saw how difficult it was for organizations and individuals to publish data into the web in such a way it could become easy to search and use.

We currently work mainly with government organizations in Latin America (Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Perú) and in the US (City of Palo Alto, Cupertino, Sacramento and Pasadena to name a few).

We enjoy helping leaders in Government that see a future in which citizens are more engaged and in which government opens up valuable resources to get innovators outside governments help solve key challenges that governments face.

We have helped organizations in setting up their open data portals, their policies and programs, and in setting up successful hackathons that brought together innovators, developers, designers, citizens in general. The outcome of such events has been great and we are seeing how this innovations occurring are already helping citizens in their day-to-day as new and valuable applications become available.

2.­ We have been following worldwide the creation of new Open Data platforms, being launched by  different  actors  such  as  governments,  city  councils  or  international  organisations.  In  your opinion, what are the mandatory elements an Open Data platform should have?

It is important to mention that setting up an Open Data Platform is not the most complicated task in setting up a successful Open Data Program.

We believe that government officials have a lot of work already and engaging the different departments and groups as well as setting up a clear policy and communicating it to generate engagement is already a lot of work.

In order to really help these government leaders that are working to make governments more transparent, accountable, and innovative, Open Data Platform providers should:

ensure that it is really easy to set up the Open Data Portal. In our case we provide all in a SaaS delivery such that governments do not need to consider hardware or software complications.

make it easy for citizens to find and use data. We put a lot of effort in ensuring that citizens can easily navigate this open data portals to not only find what they need but also to make such data easy to manipulate and use by allowing its download in multiple formats, its insertion in spreadsheets, the possibility of embedding such data in blogs or websites, and very important we provide a very easy to use API that allows developers to transform this raw data into machine readable data that can now feed new and innovative civic apps.

make it easy for government staff to maintain the Open Data Portal. Setting up is only the beginning. Open Data programs evolve and usually consider an Open Data Roadmap. Staff (non-technical) should be able to update datasets, bring new datasets and create valuable data resources and visualizations. We work hard to ensure that this workspace for staff is simple yet powerful.

Finally, Open Data is evolving and standards are continually updated. Semantic web standards are shaping how data has to be published to the web. Open Data Platforms should ensure that while governments care about publishing valuable and always updated data, the outcome is expressed complying with Open Data standards.

3.­  We  see  that  most  of  your  clients  belong  to  the  public  sector.  What  do  in  general  public administration such as municipalities or governments wish from an Open Data platform? What do they want to accomplish by launching one?

We have seen an evolution in the intentions of Open Data Programs from local and federal governments as well as in specialized agencies. Here some of the goals that these organizations want to accomplish:

– Transparency and accountability. The Open Data Movement started very focused on bringing valuable data to allow citizens to better understand what is going on in Government, how resources are being allocated, how budgets are being spent, which specific projects are the top priority and how they are being executed.

– The right thing to do. A lot of government leaders today acknowledge that valuable datasets collected by governments have to be opened up to constituents. Those datasets are being gathered thanks to tax-payer money and as long as no privacy or security issues are compromised such data should be proactively opened up.

– Citizen engagement. Government leaders also understand that it is becoming more important to engage citizens at different levels. From journalists, to citizens doing day-to-day activities, to academics, and the private sector and developers. All want to engage more with governments and have the chance of now being more informed and contributing at different levels.

– Efficiencies and collaboration. We have heard several times how governments are facing shrinking budgets while their challenges are not being reduced. By opening up data governments are becoming more efficient both in how they interact and serve constituents as well as in how different departments can collaborate. We also see that government officials are finding (via Open Data) new ways of collaborating with the private sector.

– Innovation. As valuable data resources are being opened up and hackathons proliferate we see more apps being created. It might have been unthinkable some time ago to have the private sector so engaged in civic innovation, but the fact that now valuable resources are being opened up allows for new apps being created.

– Economic Development. Open Data Programs can certainly trigger economic development. We see new companies being created. We also see new services (data services) being provided to local companies. We see products and services companies that are improved by live and valuable data feeds. And we see new efficient ways of governments tackling key issues such as education, tourism, agriculture, housing. Successful Open Data Programs are taking into account Economic Development goals to define roadmaps of datasets that have to be opened up.

4.­ And what about the others? Is Junar also suitable for other kind of organisations such as private companies, NGOs, etc? Can you point us to any success case?

Yes, since the beginning we saw that the Open Data movement will trickle down to other sectors.

In this particular industry, Government has been the early adopter and it is expected a global impact of between 3 and 5 Trillion dollars from Government Open Data (McKinsey report).

But we are already seeing the interest from:

 – Media outlets, Newspapers. Data Journalism is a big trend. We see some newspapers such as the guardian, BBC, La Nacion in Argentina, and many others taking into account the value of data in Journalism 2.0.

 – NGOs, Associations, and Academia. Reporting results and ensuring that valuable research takes the form of Open Data so that research can be easily taken to the next phase is crucial. Reporting impact is also very important.

 – Private Sector. Open Data derives a new interesting concept: Data Philantrophy. Corporations have a lot of very valuable data that used well could help tackle key problems in modern society. We have powered hackathons of corporations that are clearly interested in offering some of these data for the public good. On a different note, corporations are (yet in few numbers) understanding the value of engaging with their stakeholders and specifically with their communities of users. Open Data is one of the venues they are exploring.

5.­  Let’s  talk  about  the  context  of  Open  Data  in  South  America:  How  would  you  describe  the general status? Are public administrations already convinced of the benefits of opening data? Was it necessary to  “persuade” your  clients before working with them, or were they fully committed beforehand? Is there a general awareness among citizens?

As in any new market there are early adopters that very quickly see the value and then there are others that need more proof of the results before deploying resources.

Latin America is no different to what we see in the US or Europe. We have found some leaders that understand the importance of this trend and the impact it is having in transparency, accountability and innovation. In those cases they just want to move fast and efficiently.

We are in conversations with lots of other clients that now are seeing the impact of what governments like Chile, Perú or Costa Rica have been doing. The great case of a city like Bahia Blanca in Argentina is permeating in other cities and together with the success in city of Mercedes this is starting to impact other clients.

Overall I see a great opportunity for Latin America to be a success story in this Open Data movement.

As for citizens, it varies but we see different groups of society getting more and more engaged as the Open Data movement evolves. It started with some NGOs focused on transparency, it then started moving to Academia, and it is now permeating into other segments of society.

6.­ was also built with Junar. This site aggregates datasets generated in  the  different  Latin American  countries.  What  are  the  requirements  for such  an  interregional initiative  to  succeed?  We  covered  a  similar case  from  South­East  Asia.  Do  you  think  such platforms will get more developed with the time? Can we see it as the next step once governments have their own national platform?

I see a lot of potential in ´aggregators´ and ´intermediaries´. As the Open Data movement evolves more and more cities and government agencies will come on board and will set up Open Data Portals. It makes a lot of sense to have organizations that group some of these data.

It will also make sense to have organizations adding value on top of open data and even measuring and certifying quality of government open data.

Open Data Latinoamerica serves the purpose of helping lots of data journalists that need to be able to compare data. It also serves developers that need data feeds from different countries. It probably also helps multilaterals and academic institutions that are better off going to one central location to find all the data they need.

7.­ As you know, we are also focusing our research on Open Source and when it comes to tools related to Open Data, the general tendency is to release their code to the public domain. Could you tell us the factors that made you not to choose an Open Source model for Junar? We can imagine, your  clients  considered  also  Open  Source  alternatives  before  choosing  your  product.  How  are public agencies facing the open versus commercial dilemma?

Let me start this answer by telling you WHY we do what we do and why we work so hard every day.

 – We believe in a world in which governments and other organizations are more open and with this openness then citizens engage more with their transparent governments, innovation is spurred and more and better civic apps improve live in cities.

 – How we do it? by providing the easiest to use, easiest to maintain, and the most friendly for citizens and governments open data platform in the market. We also work hard to ensure that we provide the lowest total cost of ownership. This means that if everything is taken into account (hardware, technical resources, sys admins, connectivity, load balancing, etc) we are by far the least expensive solution to deploy.

In order to fulfil this vision and belief we work hard in defining and evolving the platform that will allow Open Data penetration. Today we open the code to organizations that commit to help with development of new features and modules.

Regarding becoming a full open source solution when we started with Junar we assessed the two alternatives and we opted to focus on spending all the energies and resources we had in developing a top-notch full-featured Open Data Platform that was quickly including new features suggested by actual users.

It has worked well and all the clients we have appreciate all the effort we put into the platform to provide not only a well designed and easy to use product but also a very powerful data management engine that is provided in a SaaS model allowing cities to very efficiently (and at low cost) have the lowest total cost of ownership platform in the market.

If early on we had gone the open source route we would have spent a lot of energy and resources in:

 – Community building. It requires resources to build a real community of users all over the place that are synchronized and working towards improving a platform. There is no real community around any open data platform today. Even in the case of UK most of the development and resources come from the UK government. Most of the code is being generated by a small group.

 – Code documentation vs thriving platform. As the code becomes open source the requirement to spend time and resources in code documentation becomes more and more relevant. All the time spent in this documentation is time NOT spent in actually serving clients and creating new features. It is a trade-off.

We are continuously working with Governments and when we see their interest in adding development teams to help evolve the platform we open the code and we collaborate.

And with the right amount of resources we would seriously assess opening up the code to have a really thriving community interested in bringing open data to all the corners of the world.

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Open Steps

Open Steps

Open Steps is an independent blog aggregating worldwide information around Open Cultures in form of articles, videos and other resources. Its aim is to document Open Knowledge (OK) related projects and organisations either using Open Data, promoting Open Source technologies, launching Open Government initiatives, following the principles behind Open Science, supporting the release of information or practising Data Journalism. In this way, this site seeks to continue, this time virtually, the globetrotter project realised between July 2013 to July 2014 and discover further OK projects all around the world. Subscribe to our newsletter to be part of this amazing journey!

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