Problem-Solving with Open Data: A Caribbean Perspective (Part 1)

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A guest post from Maurice McNaughton

Maurice McNaughton is actively involved in the emerging open data movement in the Caribbean as a founding member of the Caribbean Open Institute (COI). The COI is a regional coalition of Caribbean organizations that engages and works with regional governments, researchers, journalists, technologists, NGOs, and academics, to raise awareness, strengthen capacity, and foster collaborations towards the adoption of open development approaches.

Problem-Solving, one of five priority Action Areas to emerge from the extensive deliberations at the 3rd International Open Data Conference (IODC) in Ottawa from May 28-29, 2015, is at the heart of the Open Data movement. Regardless of whether the philosophical driver for a particular open data initiative is increased government transparency, improved public service delivery, enhanced government-citizen collaboration, or a stimulus for innovation/entrepreneurship, opening up data provides a catalyst for problem solving that is relevant across many different sectors, social contexts and data communities.

A few examples from the recent IODC sector-themes underscore this principle: Data + Agriculture = Combatting Hunger; Data + Education = Supporting Systemic Change; Data + Public Sector Accountability = Citizen Empowerment; Data + Indigenous People = Indigenous Voices. Central to this problem-solving mantra is the incredible convening power that open data engenders in bringing together government officials—who have both access to data and an understanding of key policy problems—with stakeholders, domain experts and innovators from outside government, across different countries and different sectors, around shared problem spaces and practical problem solving.

This problem-centric approach has always been an imperative for the emerging Open Data landscape in the Caribbean. In a region where small island developing economies struggle to cope with the lingering effects of the economic recession, tight fiscal space, and limited economic policy discretion, the open data narrative demands tangible returns on the investment of scarce resources, if it is to compete for scarce resources and political attention. In this setting, problem-solving has become the dominant discourse:

  •  In Agriculture, how does Open Data help to combat the vexing problem of praedial larceny?
  •  In Tourism, can Open Data initiatives increase visibility and economic opportunities for small community tourism interests that struggle to survive in a sector dominated by large properties and operators?
  •  In Education, can Open Data analytics help to optimize efficiency and equity in the allocation of financial and material resources across school districts?
  •  In Fisheries & Marine Protected Areas, can Open Data enhance the governance linkages between national, regional, and global stakeholders in order to improve policy, legislative, and managerial decisions in a domain that is critical to Caribbean environmental sustainability?

The COI recently conducted comprehensive studies in key sectors critical to Caribbean economies: Agriculture, Education, Tourism, Fisheries/Marine Protected Areas, and Official Statistics. These studies highlight significant value opportunities for which Open Data can be a catalyst. Arising from these studies, four strategic initiatives will be executed over the next 9-12 months, each of which is anchored by a clearly-defined and scoped Problem Statement and together comprise the substance of the COI’s program of work under the global OD4D project. The details of these initiatives will be discussed in Part 2 of this Blog, however collectively they address 4 key cross-cutting themes that are central to the Problem-Solving Action Area.

  1. Targeted, sector-specific approaches that seek to harness the complementary strengths of government, private sector, NGOs, and academia in enabling context-aware and high-impact innovation exchange. The Caribbean shares strong interest in open data initiatives in Agriculture and Education with the global community. However our focus on challenges in Tourism, Fisheries, and Marine-protected-areas, not often seen in the global open data discourse, reflects the distinctive nature and priorities of the region.
  1. Harnessing the economic potential of open data in non-traditional spaces will be explored within the context of community tourism, as a means of capacity building, stimulating entrepreneurship, and generating economic lift for marginalized groups.
  1. Engender active private sector engagement and participation in the open data value chain, including awareness and capacity building for entrepreneurs and enterprise to make greater use of open data as an economic resource.
  1. Scalability in reach and impact is a desirable attribute of problem-centered open data initiatives. For the Caribbean, which has been perennially challenged by the small-scale of island economies, we explore scalability through both replication and the concept of a Caribbean Digital Commons that is not confined by geographical boundaries.

Lean principles suggest that effective problem-solving is enhanced by experimentation and iteration towards “good-enough” solutions. The Caribbean offers to the larger open data community, a uniquely configured developing context that is rich in diversity, but small enough to allow for agile experimentation. As we look towards IODC 2016 in Madrid, Spain we expect that the Caribbean initiatives will contribute meaningfully to the growing portfolio of evidence of the effective, high-impact, and sustainable use of open data.

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