AbreLatam and Con Datos: An Open Data conference for Latin America

Last week I attended the AbreLatam and ConDatos events in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was the fifth edition of this regional conference on open data for Latin America and was held over three days at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in central San Jose. What follows is a round up of the the days along with some of my impressions.

Day One – Abre Latam Unconference

The first day was an unconference event, with the agenda being decided by the participants at the start of the day. There was a sizeable proportion of attendees who were at their first unconference. The format went down well, with a number of people saying how much they enjoyed the more collaborative style both during the day and at the end of the event.

One difference to other unconferences I’ve attended was that, instead of asking people to come up and pitch their ideas for sessions at the front, we were all given three Post-It notes. We wrote down three topics, ideas or thoughts and stuck them on the giant blank agenda.

Collaborative Agenda at AbreLatam 2017

Collaborative Agenda at AbreLatam 2017

One of the topics of conversation that came up both on this day and subsequent ones was the need to pursue and prosecute laws where they already exist. For instance, in the first session I attended on privacy, a number of attendees said that their country had strong privacy laws but that they were often ignored with impunity by the authorities.

There was also a conference on human rights in San Jose last week and a lawyer attending that told me something similar, that in many cases in Latin America it is not that the law does not confer human rights, but that people’s access to exercising those rights are unequal.

I also attended a workshop on the data around violence against women. There was a considerable focus on this at the event and numerous sessions were held across the three days, with Cuantas Mas, a Bolivian project collecting data about women who have been murdered in Bolivia, being particularly prominent.

This workshop included discussions around the lack of reliable data relating to violence against women across the whole region and how that impacts on campaigning groups. It is difficult to convince someone of the seriousness of your issue without reliable, significant data and when the criminal justice system just does not collect that data it says a lot about systemic attitudes towards these crimes.

Day Two – Con Datos Conference

This day followed a much more formal style of conference, with presentations and talks in the traditional format. On a personal level this was simpler for me to follow. One person talking into a microphone is a lot easier to understand than a number of people contributing in a group, often with background noise, when the event is in a second language.

Countries represented at AbreLatam and Con Datos 2017

Countries represented at AbreLatam and Con Datos 2017

A particular highlight of the day was Beth Noveck‘s talk on the future of open data. She spoke about the impact of open data and put this within the context of open societies and government. This reflected what was one of the principal themes of the conference for me. One of the promises of open data is that it strengthens democracy through greater transparency and participation.

It is by no means guaranteed and can be threatened at any time.

Beth illustrated this threat with a photo of Donald Trump and pointed out that he is rolling back many of the advances in openness and transparency made under Obama. I’d ask as well – when the political landscape can change so dramatically and rapidly to a “post-truth” situation, then what is the role for open data? When facts are dismissed as unimportant or the sign of some sort of elitism, then what can and should we do?

You can view Beth’s talk and subsequent Q&A with Fabrizzio Scollini on Sinart Canal 13’s Facebook page.

Day Three – Con Datos Workshops and further talks

Friday saw us return for a mixed day. There were workshops run by The Engine Room as well as some presentations. I was interested in the open democracy stream, but unfortunately the sound in that particular room was a bit rough and I was unable to follow proceedings.

Instead I went along to hear a couple of presentations in the theatre. First, there was one on the W3C project, Data on the Web Best Practices given by Caroline Burle. I was particularly interested as the SharePSI project I had been a part of before leaving the UK had fed into this. This featured the one and only mention of Linked Data that I heard during the three days. Also, if I followed it properly, then there were very few people in the audience who had heard of it before.

This was followed by a talk entitled Small Data, Data With Impact. Offered as an alternative to Big Data, the presenter, Sergio Araiza, defined Small Data as being the most relevant data to describe something’s impact rather than being about the volume of that data. It was an interesting presentation including some examples from the work of SocialTIC in Mexico with an organization working with people who live on the streets.

I tried to make a point about how this organization were providing preventative health services. I thought this was relevant and that Sergio might be interested in the data modelling work that Inside Outcomes have done in the UK on this. Unfortunately I was unable to make myself understood either in Spanish or English. I appear to have become unintelligible in two languages now!

The event finished with a plenary session, including a presentation from the President of Costa Rica (in the middle of a tropical storm).

I’d like to thank the organizers of AbreLatam and ConDatos for putting on a stimulating and varied event that managed to work across the full three days. That is no mean achievement. After a two year career break this was an ideal way to rekindle my enthusiasm for work.

Oh, and what little I saw of Costa Rica was beautiful. I’m definitely going back.

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