Saturday 4th March was Open Data Day 2017. In Seattle, it crept up on us without anyone noticing, myself included. Luckily, The City’s Civic Technology Advocate, Candace Faber, joined an Open Seattle gathering and brought the date to our attention. Not wanting to pass up a chance to nerd out on some open data, I set about organising a last minute event.

With the help of fellow Data for Democracy member, Zach Mueller, a plan was formed. We picked data visualisation as a theme for the day that felt fun, suitable for a short event, and also inclusive for people of varying technical backgrounds. A handful of frantic emails to potential venues later, and Capitol Hill Tool Library kindly offered us the use of their workshop space for the afternoon. Now, the four day countdown until Open Data Day felt totally manageable.

We didn’t have the time to plan a fully structured event, so we advertised the afternoon as an unstructured hacking session to play with and plot open data. To make the event as open as possible, we gathered some materials and online resources. This included a page of useful links for finding open data and getting started with visualisation, as well as cherry picking some datasets. As an extra bonus, I hunted the thrift store for items to build physical visualisations.

The day drew a diverse crowd, who happily hacked and chatted away the afternoon. It was great to have some interesting discussions about open data in Seattle too, with strong opinions from many participants on the quality of open data from the City. We also talked about the contradicting feelings many of us have about requesting more data to be published. The City does provide a route for requesting new datasets, but while we all want to see more become available, actually pinning down what we would want to access is hard. There is an overwhelming amount of information that you can consider to describe the workings of a city, and probably even more that is less obvious. Sometimes there are specific things we want to build or find out, but it can also be hard as a citizen to envision what data is possible to acquire or useful. At the same time, it’s hard for the City to know what citizens want or will be empowered to create.

Feedback for the City of Seattle's open data programme

My highlight of the afternoon was breaking out the poker chips I had brought and using them to visualise some small datasets that we had printed off. We created physical 3D bar charts about planning permit applications in the City, and more importantly the distribution of cats and dogs by zip code. The best bit about this was having something that was fun and tangible to focus conversations around. It wasn’t long before a group had gathered around our map of pet and were debating the physical and social indicators that levels of cat and dog ownership might be a proxy for. I’ve spent some time since the event thinking that it could be really useful to run a physical visualisation workshop with adults and young people, to explore and understand data in the modern world.

Physical data visualisations!

Finally, a few practical things I learned from running the event:

  • Explaining to people who are arriving at an event what’s going on and how they can join in is important. What seems obvious to the organisers isn’t always obvious to someone just turning up.
  • If possible, give people a chance to introduce themselves to others and share their skills or expectations for the day with the organisers.
  • Have a mix of activities planned. Not everyone wants to sit and hack for 5 hours. Mixing some structured workshop time with unstructured working time seems like it would be optimal for this type of event.
  • People being quiet doesn’t mean they’re having a bad time. A couple of people sat contently at their laptops for most of the afternoon, which I found slightly stressful. The Brit in me says that anyone doing that must be having a bad time, but is just being too polite to say anything. In fact, the opposite was true and a couple of the quieter participants came up at the end to tell me they’d had fun and would like to do something similar again.

I’d love to run more open data and visualisation workshops, maybe next time with a bit more planning and structure. It could be really fun to run a physical visualisation workshop with adults or young people, to explore and understand data in the modern world in an approachable way. See you at Open Data Day 2018!