Dirk Slater: What I Learned Working with Fair Play Alliance

Author: Dirk Slater
Original Post: Fabrider.net
Date: 11 June 2013

Thanks to the Transparency and Accountability Initiative’s mentorship program, I was able to spend a week in Bratislava, being a mentor to Fair Play Alliance. The goal of the mentorship is to help Fair Play Alliance become more agile and flexible in its ability to manage projects and identify how they can more effectively connect with stakeholders through their data projects.

Over the last decade, FairPlay Alliance has worked hard to get the Slovakian government to be more transparent and open-up data about the use of public funds. Their hallmark data project, DataNest, was developed so that investigative journalists wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for every single piece of information they wished to obtain. One problem they have had to grapple with is that the Slovakian government will release the data in huge chunks or in formats that make it a challenge for people to  pull out the data they are looking for.  So Fair Play has taken on several projects that works at mining the data and re-publishing it in useable formats.  Their tactics with cleaning up the data often pays off, such as their Open Contracts project, as the government is now replicating the functionality of the site on its own pages and with the DataNest  – which was developed so that investigative journalists wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for every single piece of data they wished to obtain.

Today, Fair Play Alliance is thinking more deeply about how their data projects fit into a longer term strategy around encouraging stronger and more transparent public institutions in Slovakia.  We spent the first day looking at developing a theory of change for the organisation.  This started a bit morbidly, creating an epitaph and imagining it on a tombstone that read ‘Because of Fair Play Alliance, a free and just society of active people exists, who are not afraid and don’t cheat, because strong and open institutions enforce rules transparently.’  After accomplishing this task, we could then look at how this success impacted their stakeholders and what preconditions it would take for this success to happen. (We drew upon exercises available from Keystone Accountability’s Resources Page.)

Establishing the vision of success, stakeholders and preconditions on the first day meant we could reference them as we dived deeper into specific projects and organisational challenges through the rest of the week.  We then went on to explore the goals of their data projects, the role of packaging and/or visualising data, establishing evaluation metrics and steps to take towards creating an organisational strategy.  Here’s my aha’s from the week:

  • It’s not quantifiable vs qualifiable. Evaluation metrics are best established by talking through what the value of the project is to stakeholders and then looking at indicators of this value.  Drill down from qualitative metrics to get metrics you can quantify (i.e, ‘we’d like to see more open public data used by journalists’, becomes ‘we’d like to see a 10% increase in articles using open public data’)
  • In project planning, remember Donald Rumsfield (but only then). When creating a data project plan, leave ample breathing room for your known unknowns and your unknown unknowns.  Always build in extra time and extra budget at the beginning (depending on the complexity of your project plan).
  • Start your project with a focus on the user. If you intend for stakeholders to make use of the data you are publishing, get them involved in developing your project early – really early, to clarify what they how they will use the data.  This blog post was very helpful in talking about that –  http://tech.transparency-initiative.org/6-useful-steps-when-planning-your-tech-project/
  • Grab users quickly. Humans have an average attention span of just 8 seconds and if your online content doesn’t grab them immediately, they will be gone. Stakeholders may be a bit more patient, but don’t bet on it and make it easy for them to find what they are looking for. This info-graphic says it all. – http://leaderswest.com/2013/06/03/infographic-average-reader-will-only-read-20-of-web-content/
  • Tell your users what to do. If your data website is not as useable or as intuitive as you like, think about how to build tutorials that can give people step by step instructions
  • Live by example. Developing an Organisational Strategy can do more than just focus you on your goals.  You can also use the process to replicate the behaviour  you seek others to follow and use it to engage and build a community.  Wikipedia’s video Kofolawas very helpful and inspiring. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_planning
  • Open Data and Crowd-sourced data can work together. Along with publicly released data from the government, crowd-sourced data can have similar impact, particularly when you are looking to establish things like personal connections between public figures.

Along with being truly inspired by Fair Play Alliances dedicated team and their working dynamic, I also got a chance to enjoy Bratislava. Thankfully the Danube stayed at bay thanks to the flood defences.  I can’t say enough about the giant dumpling I ate that was stuffed with blueberries and topped with poppy seeds.  Also the local soft drink Kofola, who knew? It’s better than Coke!

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