Data Bootcamps: Teaching changemakers to turn data into knowledge

Since January 2012, when the African Media Initiative (AMI) and the World Bank Institute (WBI) ran the first data bootcamp in Kenya, members of Open Knowledge International and the Network have become regular trainers at such bootcamps, collaborating with other organisations to help to impart skills, exchange ideas, network and build on open data initiatives.

Increasing data literacy skills in the civic community is vital to the creation of knowledge and insight from data made available by governments. As governments around the world start implementing open data initiatives, it is key that we work to establish a critical public, empowered with the appropriate range of tools and skills to find, extract, analyze and contextualise the data to tell engaging stories that encourage civic participation.

Generally held over three days, bootcamps are intensive, hands-on training courses, which use team-based project work, to quickly teach the required technical skills. Bootcamps are designed to teach a diverse range of people - journalists, and members of civil society organisations (CSOs) and technical communities - the most important techniques and tools needed to analyze data, often with a focus on public spending information, including open budget processes. The sessions also encourage participants to form diverse teams and work on practical projects of their choice, helping them to effectively collaborate and co-create in the open data space.

Motivated by the success in Kenya, similar workshops have been held in places like Moldova, South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana and Nepal. Open Knowledge International team members, such as Friedrich Lindenberg of OpenSpending and Michael Bauer of School of Data, have been involved as trainers in several of these.

“The feedback received has been overwhelmingly positive. Journalists and civil society representatives, the majority of whom had never worked with data before, started to realize the power of translating data into stories and applications to cover important issues. Several of their projects have already been successfully adopted by media outlets and continue to be developed.”

Michael Bauer, Data Trainer, School of Data


The Data Bootcamp in Ghana: A case study of its impact

The Ghanaian Government started the Ghana Open Data Initiative in 2010, commissioning the National Information Technology Agency to drive the program, and later developed an open government data platform, With the open data scene flourishing, the October 2012 three day bootcamp was joined by approximately 60 participants from diverse backgrounds, with good mix of journalists, civil society representatives and technologists.

Participants were guided through the learning process - starting with the basics, like dealing with spreadsheets, and then taking them step by step through tools like Google Refine, and finally to creating visualisations with Fusion Tables. On the second day, participants broke off into seven groups to work on specific projects and applications, dealing with a variety of topics, from traffic accidents to public procurement.

By the third day, encouraged, participants even started teaching themselves and sharing the knowledge. One participant created a tutorial on how to import point of interest data into excel, while others showed the class how to create simple websites and embed Fusion Table graphs and maps. The Bootcamp ended with short presentations of their projects.

Emmanuel Okyere, co-founder of tech company  Hutspace, which specialises in data analysis and app building, was one of the participants who attended October 2012 data bootcamp held in Ghana. Unlike most participants, Okyere - being an open data advocate since 2001, and having over 20 years experience as a software developer- was not new to the skills and tools being introduced at the workshop. However, he still found it enlightening and useful in various ways.

“Even though I knew about open data, I had not heard about data journalism before. Unlike traditional journalism which finds a story idea, and looks for data to back up the idea, data journalism, which employs a data-first approach, was new to me. It was the bootcamp that opened up this field to me,”

Emmanuel Okyere, co-founder of tech company Hutspace

Okyere continued that he had initially planned to join the bootcamp just for a day, intending mainly to meet the journalists present as a part of his work, but the event turned out to be so “well organised”, “exciting and engaging ” that he ended up attending all the three days.

“I think people who came and had no idea about open data and data journalism went away knowing at least the basics. For me, personally, I don't think without the bootcamp I would have ever realised the value of data journalism. There were things I already used to do like scrapping and visualisation, but I took them for granted and never realised that they was part of a larger movement that was going on,”

Emmanuel Okyere

When the participants broke into groups, Okyere’s team worked on application for Ghana’s procurement data, that would categorise how the money had been spent. At the end of the workshop, a competition was held in which they were awarded the third prize.


Building on the workshop

Since the bootcamp, Okyere has kept in touch with both trainers from the School of Data and OpenSpending. He has also started working on Ghana’s procurement data. He explains that this is a long term project, with a lot of work to be done in order to getting it to the level of bringing it to the public attention. Though the Ghanaian Government has been publishing its procurement data, tenders and contracts online for sometime, most of the datasets were incomplete and erroneous, and a lot of work had to be put in to first clean them up.

“Through my work as an IT consultant I realised that the procurement process was a mess in Ghana, starting from the publishing of tenders to the evaluation and awards processes. There is a lot of corruption in my country. I felt I needed to write some applications around the procurement data, and try to tackle the corruption at its source, so I went on to build an application that would allow people to do tender evaluations in a much more streamlined fashion,”

Emmanuel Okyere

Okyere explained that he scrapped the data originally published by the Public Procurement Authority of Ghana, flagging all the erroneous data sets, and then standardising the contracts which were in various currencies to a single currency, so that they could be compared, analysed, and visualisations and reports could be produced. The next challenge he says is to work to make it less technical and easier to understand for the general public, before publishing it to encourage civic participation in the procurement process.

In 2012, the Indigo Trust also awarded funding to Hutspace and mySociety to design and build Odekro, a parliamentary monitoring platform, which was launched in 2013 in collaboration with other partners. Through his work on Odekro, Okyere hopes to promote transparency and accountability of governance, and empower communities and marginalized populations in Ghana.

“Odekro has already had some impact. This year we had significant increase in our social media followers, so we feel that gradually we are getting some people excited about monitoring parliament and demanding accountability from elected officials. We are going to keep pressing on with that,”

Emmanuel Okyere

Okyere also mentioned that this year, as a recognition of their work on Odekro, the Ghana Open Data Initiative signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with them with the aim of disseminating information about open data and furthering open data initiatives throughout Ghana.

Apart from these projects, Okyere has also been training many journalists and members of CSOs in the basics of data journalism, including data scraping and visualisation. With a Freedom of Information bill about to be passed by the Ghanaian Government, and a vibrant and growing open data community present, Okyere is very optimistic about the future.

“We hope to tell interesting stories around issues that will resonate with Ghanaians, and that we can support journalists, CSOs and research departments in various government agencies to break down the large amounts of data they are collecting into useful bits of information that citizens can easily digest and act upon. Generally, we hope that we can get a lot more people excited about the potential of open data and data journalism in Ghana,”

Emmanuel Okyere