The ‘Wrangling for Watchdogs’ workshop

In March 2013, a pilot two-day intensive workshop, ‘Wrangling for Watchdogs’, was organised by the School of Data in Berlin. Fifteen members from various non profit organisations of central and eastern Europe joined the workshop to learn how to work more effectively with data, and specifically how to base campaigns on data-driven evidence. Participants included members of Transparency International, Open Oil, Tech Soup, GONG, Phenomenon Foundation, and The Engine Room.

Most of the participants had only very basic technical skills in dealing with data before the workshop. The School of Data’s approach has always been grounded in imparting practical knowledge and skills, and the workshops are geared to help participants address real problems. This workshop was no different; the participants were encouraged to use the sessions to deal with problems which they were actually interested in solving.

The participants, with guidance and support from School of Data’s diverse range of trainers, learnt new tools and techniques, and dealt with many interesting mini-projects - ranging from converting scanned leaflets into a machine-readable form to be mined as text, to creating network diagrams of connections between directors of oil companies. The workshop was not only geared to help them understand how to drive their campaigns with data, but also guided them on how to teach other members of their organisations to do the same.

With at least 60% of the two days spent tackling individual projects, every single person left the workshop having advanced at least one of their projects.

As Anders Pedersen, one of the trainers at the workshop said,

“When we hold such workshops, people leave saying ‘I learnt this specific skill set, and this is really going to help us with these particular problems’. If we can bring people, working for change, a step forward in terms of tools and skills, the add on effect is huge.”

 

Danela’s story: Working towards an Open Government in Croatia

In the last few years, Croatia has taken significant strides towards establishing a more transparent and accountable government. In September 2011, Croatia officially joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiative and committed itself to working towards the OGP’s goals of transparency and accountability.

In February 2013, after almost a decade of research, advocacy, law amendments and public discussions, the Croatian Parliament adopted a new Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), that redefined transparency and made access to information a constitutional right. The OGP commended the introduction of the new FOIA, and the Croatian Government has followed up with the appointment of an independent Information Commissioner.

GONG, a representative for Croatia in the Open Government Partnership, is a non-profit dedicated to working towards an open government, and citizen participation in Croatia. Through their advocacy, public campaigns, and networking with the European Union and other CSOs, GONG has been at the forefront of the Open movement, and have established a network through which more than 60 organisations with similar aims interact, collaborate, and support various projects and activities.

Danela Zagar, who has a degree in Journalism and a Masters in Political Communication, works for the communications department of GONG and is in charge of formulating GONG’s key messages and communicating them to citizens, CSOs and the media to encourage citizen participation in the Croatian political process.

In March 2013, Danela had attended the ‘Wrangling for Watchdogs’ workshop on behalf of her organisation. She spoke in glowing terms about the tools and skills she learnt at the workshop and how the workshop led her step-by-step through the process of finding, cleaning, visualising and presenting data online.

Danela pointed out that before the workshop GONG had gathered a relatively large amount of data through research on the enforcement of FOIA and desired to use those data sets to create interactive visualisations that would capture the imagination of its citizens and engage them in the political process. Unfortunately, the members of GONG not only lacked more advanced programming skills such as the ability to use programming languages, but were also unaware of the many simple and free tools and apps available to work with data. Danela feels the workshop was a perfect solution for her.


“First of all, just talking with the trainers -all with so much experience - and getting the chance to discuss the best practices and examples of visualizations gave me insights which were so useful for my daily work. The workshop was really dynamic and effective. It left us with the confidence that you don’t have to be an IT geek to do sexy visualisations!”

Danela Zagar, GONG

Danela also added that while other similar courses were too expensive and out of her reach, this workshop was not only accessible but also shared with her free resources - like blogs and online courses on open data and data journalism - that further broadened her skill set. She also emphasised the value of being able to network with similar minded people and share knowledge in a collaborative environment.

“For me one of the biggest successes was networking with people – Croatia was becoming an EU member in that period - networking with organisations that are dealing with topics similar to GONG’s was crucial for me and my work,”

Danela Zagar, GONG

After the workshop, GONG has also advocated for some crucial changes in the FOIA last year. In keeping with the one of the key aims of open knowledge, GONG has pushed for data to be available in user friendly, easy to read and searchable formats. Additionally, GONG has worked hard to promote the open data concept in Croatia within action Plans of OGP.

The organisation is currently working, in collaboration with UK based organisation mySociety, on a Croatian version of the online portal AsktheEU.org, which will allow citizens to request information more openly and efficiently from the Government. While Danela had already heard of AsktheEU.org before the workshop, it was only at the workshop that she got a real understanding of how the platform worked, and came up with the idea of building a similar local platform for Croatia. At the time of interview, Danela also spoke about various other projects GONG would be involved in, in the following weeks.

“This Friday, we’re organizing a Code for Croatia event, which will involve a hackathon and a panel discussion involving key decision makers on open data. GONG is also starting a pilot project on participatory budgeting in Pazin, a small town in Istria, to create an online platform for open budgeting that could be useful for all local units in Croatia”

 

Danela hopes more such workshops are organised soon and says it would be most valuable to dedicate more time to deal with specific problems and gain further experience. These skills would help organisations like GONG to achieve their long term goals of improved government transparency and accountability, political literacy, and democratic participation.

“Now, after the introduction of the new FOIA and the appointment of an independent Information Commissioner, we have a chance to set standards a higher, even if it has to be with baby steps,”

Danela Zagar, GONG

Kasia’s story: Spreading the knowledge

After having studied ‘Organisation and Management’ in a Technical University in Poland - where she picked up her initial data skills - Katarzyna Mikolajczyk, also known Kasia, worked for a couple of years in corporate communications. During these years she devoted most of her spare time to working voluntarily with various non-profit organisations, some of whom were trying to increase citizen engagement and improve her city, Lodz.

In 2009, she merged this personal passion of hers with her career, and took up a job in communications with the newly established Fundacja Fenomen (Phenomenon Foundation), a small, volunteer driven NGO in Lodz. Phenomenon Foundation works to raise people’s awareness that they can be crucial participants in government, and not just the subject of government decisions and activities.

Having some data and visualisation skills, Kasia was often selected to look through and work with documents that were data heavy. However, she explains, that she often had to spend hours on them as she was not aware of many tools and had to sort them manually on programs such as Excel.

Kasia was one of the participants, representing her organisation at ‘Wrangling for Watchdogs’ workshop in March 2013. She feels the tools and skills she picked up were invaluable to her work.

“Before the workshop, I was using almost an ‘analog’ approach. I was not aware of the tools that I was introduced to in Berlin. After that, it became so easy for me, and I knew then I would be using these tools for my everyday analysis. Also, now, I have the tools to visualise and show, to explain to people, why we should take a certain action and how it can make things better,”

Katarzyna Mikolajczyk, Phenomenon Foundation

Kasia’s story is quite a popular one in the School of Data - trainers present at the workshop often recount how she shed ‘tears of joy’ at the end of the Berlin workshop. She had come to the workshop with a specific project to complete and a very strict deadline to do it by. Kasia had less than a month to organise 36 citizen meetups in Lodz. She needed a way to capture the imagination of citizens by visualising open government data - like the participatory budget of Lodz - in order to convince them that their participation in decisions around how money is spent in their city can make a real difference.

School of Data staff worked with her, showing her how to create a visualisation with OpenSpending. In the final session of the final day, as organisers had started to pack up the room, Kasia got her wish - she had managed, all by herself, to visualise the participatory budget of Lodz.

The tools that School of Data introduced Kasia to continued to help her in her work in many other ways.

 “It took me two to three days to organise and book all the meetup venues, but it only took me five minutes to put it all on a map! It was really great!”.

Katarzyna Mikolajczyk, Phenomenon Foundation

Since then Kasia has been using those tools almost everyday. It has made her work both more time efficient and effective. Over the past nine months since she attended the workshop, Kasia has even taught some of these useful skills and tools to the staff and volunteers in her organisation.

“I have even been to sessions in other cities to show people what’s possible with these tools. In March 2014, I am going to another city to show others working in NGOs how to work with data and easily visualise it,”

Katarzyna Mikolajczyk, Phenomenon Foundation

In Lodz, Kasia found that through the visualisation of the budgets, as citizens started to better understand where their money is spent, more and more of them have taken interest and come forward.

“I am not sure how long it will take, but I am sure that the more people that have this data, and understand the budgets, the more transparent and accountable our Government will be,”

Katarzyna Mikolajczyk, Phenomenon Foundation

After the success with the participatory budget, Kasia has set her sights on involving people in the city’s general budget too. She hopes that it can be used more effectively for the city and its needs.

Kasia feels that the work of the School of Data is vital in this process, and that their workshops are “perfect” in facilitating and helping organisations to build skills and find the right tools to work more effectively.

“Somehow they reached and touched me and my organisation, and through us many other organisations and individuals. I think it’s working very, very well”.

Katarzyna Mikolajczyk, Phenomenon Foundation