What does it mean to become ‘data literate’? Where do you start and how can you use data within your work and projects? To explore these questions, we would like to introduce some of our community members and data activists from around the world, who ended up working with data at some point in their lives. We were curious about how they actually got started and - looking back now - what they would recommend to data newbies.
Each month we will publish a new interview, this is no. #7. Got feedback? Have questions? Feel free to get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please introduce yourself.
My name is George Labrèche, I’m the founder of Open Data Kosovo: an organisation based in Pristina in Kosovo that’s all about civic tech. We develop digital solutions to social problems with an approach that emphasises youth engagement in identifying problems, conceptualising solutions, implementing the final product, and in advocating for change.
I have been a software engineer for about 10 years and I also have a background in international affairs. Being able to speak the language of both technology and governance has certainly fostered my interest in everything that merges both those worlds.
When was the first time, when you came across data, when did you start to use data in your work?
My original motivation wasn’t to create a civic tech organisation, I was a techie who wanted to launch a startup. However, when I was studying the feasibility of achieving this in Kosovo, I realised that there were significant blockers in terms of available skills and technological capacity that would prevent me from engaging in the activities I wanted my startup to be involved in. Before I could even start, I would have to train people in all aspects of scalable and robust digital product development.
So I thought, OK, let’s start by training local youth from the tech community and exposed them to more modern and enabling technologies. After some investment in skill development, I could hire them and get my startup, well, started. However, I needed support to provide these trainings in the first place.
Then it hit me, if I designed digital capacity building workshops in a way that also contributed to local state-building efforts around democratisation and government transparency then I could fundraise from donors who operate in this area and are keen on “innovative” projects. Suddenly, open data as the raw resource to drive local digital skill development made complete sense and that’s how I started getting involved with open data.
How would you explain data literacy, what does it mean to you?
Data literacy isn’t limited to the ability for anyone to understand data as it is presented to them, but involves the investment on the effort required to abstract data into information presented in layman terms. People shouldn’t have too see data nor be knowledgeable about the concept of open data in order to appreciate the insights that they provide.
If you look at the budget allocation of the projects we’ve implemented in the past 3 years, you’ll notice that at the very beginning 90% of the budget was dedicated to purely technical implementation of a project whereas now at least half of a project budget is dedicated to presenting data in a distillable format and disseminating insights. Beyond just data visualisations, this can mean organising a radio talk show or a TV panel discussion on the findings. I believe that these are the activities that broaden the concept of data literacy as not only the ability to read and understand data but the activities related to abstracting data.
What topics and projects are you currently working on?
A lot of our activities have a huge component of youth engagement. And in Kosovo the best engagement we get are from young women in the tech sector. Consistently, young women in the tech sector have been much more responsive to our calls and workshops. This is partly explained by their awareness of being in an unfair gender discriminatory situation when it comes to establishing themselves as skilled techies. So they are more keen in seizing every opportunity available to them to enhance their skills and build a robust portfolio. Since we always involve our workshop participants in identifying problems they wish to develop digital solutions to, I find myself continuously working on gender sensitive projects for women in technology.
We have a project called Tech4Policy which seeks to empower young women to design digital solutions to governance and democratization challenges in Kosovo’s municipalities. It is implemented in cycles and starts with a problem diagnosis where work with municipalities and local communities to identify the burning problems they face day in day out. Then comes the digital problem-solving where we create a supportive environment to catalyse innovative solutions that leverage modern technologies for contributing to social good. Finally, we engage in skill development and product design where we equip young women with the necessary skills to design real-world digital solutions to local governance challenges that they identified.
Another project I am currently involved in is Walk Freely, a sexual harassment reporting app which was designed and implemented in partnership between Open Data Kosovo, Girls Coding Kosova, and Kosovo Women’s Network. The young women programmers we had involved basically identified the need to address a lack of data on sexual harassment. Data as evidence was needed in order to raise awareness on the widespread issue of sexual harassment and generate conversations as well as advocate for change. Now that we are collecting hard data on instance of sexual harassment, we can present them to the adequate authorities as well as civil society organizations who can then use it as evidence rather than solely rely on narratives. Personally, I’m working with institutional partners in Brazil to have the app successfully deployed over there whereas Girls Coding Kosova are involved in promoting and institutionalizing the app locally in Kosovo.
The project you are talking about is called “Walk Freely.” Who was involved to make the project happen?
It truly was a multi-disciplinary project which involved multiple actors from different fields, all of which productively contributed their expertise. We partnered with Girls Coding Kosova, a grassroots organisation with an extensive community of women programmers that’s all about promoting women in tech; Kosovo Women’s Network which supports, protects, and promotes the rights and the interests of women and girls throughout Kosovo; and the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare which ensured government involvement in implementing the project (we also secured commitment from Kosovo Police). The community of young women programmers were the backbone of this project and having them interact with all our partner institutions created bridges that allowed these institutions to be more aware of each other and closely collaborate among themselves.
For this project we placed particular emphasis on the tech community of young women programmers because we didn’t want them to remain obscured behind computers. We wanted them to be engaged as citizens because the end-product was only going to be successful if they were passionate about using and promoting it. We incubated that passion by taking them out of their typical area of operation with mobility that was developed simply by making them realise that they could apply their skills for solutions to social problems that cut across multiple sectors rather than just focus in the tech sector. A lot of the drive had to do with exposure, for instance, when we did TV interviews or radio shows we always sent participants and they became the spokespeople and ambassadors of the project. Furthermore, by collaborating with these young women programmers, the non-technical actors from the institutions and activists that we worked with have developed an appreciation on how technology can be used to assist them in their mission. They are now able to come up with their own ideas on how to collect and process the data they need and are eager to get young members of the tech community involved as active citizens.
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