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In Latvia, a plea for citizens to push for data-driven public policy

- August 18, 2016 in Event report, Fellowship

Data is the core substance required for evidence-based policies and decision-making. “How do we make Latvia the country that makes most use of data to inform its decision-making?” was the question that Latvian MP’s and civil-society representatives tried to answer during 1,5 hours on the hot morning of July 2nd, at the occasion of the second edition of the national political festival, LAMPA.

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This festival, funded by the DOTS foundation, aims to clarify the concept of open data which is still new for Latvian law-makers, who often confuse it with public data. The discussions there serve as a good encouragement to give data to the hands of regular citizens and encourage them to participate in national, evidence-based policy making.

The roadblocks to evidence-based decision-making

None of the participants denied the importance of evidence in decision-making. Nevertheless, many alarming issues were detected. Open data, and engaging civil society in its use, was seen as one of the best short-term solutions for producing more thoughtful policy-making.

First, the State Controller, Elita Krumina, raised the issue that evidence – based on statistics, research documents and research papers – needs to be revised every year. There are many policies based on outdated evidence, even though the real situation has actually changed.

Another issue the Head of State Secretary Office, Martins Krievins, illuminated was that oftentimes decisions are made quickly and there is no time for lengthy research and data-gathering. At the same time, Krumina suggested that a great deal of research is conducted, but the benefit is small: “These papers repeat already-known principles of good governance without giving much data-driven solutions,” she explained.

The problem of trust

“The problem is, we don’t trust many evidence,” says Krievins. He gave an example of the census results: “First, everyone said that the data is incorrect because more people left the country than was counted. Then, when the state conducted an outsourced census, the first question was – whom did the hired company pay in bribes?”

Krievins said that data can be easily manipulated based on policy goals, whereas parliamentarian and experienced politician, Sergejs Dolgopolovs, said that he thinks it’s important to set goals and assess all the risks in order to make better decisions.

Later, Krievins admitted that there are many complex issues with evidence that may encourage a bad decision to be made: “Everyone realises that small schools in the countryside are expensive – the evidence is clear. Nevertheless, schools in the countryside are cultural centres for the local area, hosting many social events. There would be a broad social impact if small schools were to be closed.”

Ernests Jenavs, the founder and CEO of Edurio, an app that helps users to make evidence-based decisions in education, said that evidence should be separated from ideology: “Data should be analysed by independent people, not politically biased decision-makers,” says Jenavs. He suggested opening data, so that politically independent civil society members can suggest evidence-based solutions. Nika Aleksejeva, the Head of School of Data Latvia, agreed with this point, adding that there is a need for enhancing data-literacy in Latvian society and encouraging people to use open data.

Technology allows us to engage with society faster and more cheaply than before, agreed both Janevs and Aleksejeva.

The discussion was concluded by a unanimous message from the panel – there should be much more pressure from civil society for evidence-based decisions in government, and data should be open for everyone to be able to contribute to this decision-making.

Video (in Latvian): link

Event name: Festival “Lampa”, discussion “How to make Latvia the greatest country of evidence based policy-making?”
Event type: Roundtable
Event theme: open data and data-driven public policy
Description: Possibilities to execute more evidence based and data-driven policies in Latvian government
Speakers: Ernests Jenavs (the founder and CEO of Edurio) Nika Aleksejeva (the Head of School of Data Latvia) Sergejs Dolgopolovs (parliamentarian), Elita Krumina (the State Controller), Ilze Vinkele (parliamentarian), Martins Krievins (Head of State Secretary Office), Valts Kalnins (The lead researcher at think-tank PROVIDUS)
Partners: NA
Location: Cesis, Latvia
Date: July 2
Audience: cycling society representatives, analysts, others
Number of attendees NA
Gender split: NA
Duration: 1 hour

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Using data for improving cyclist community in Riga, Latvia

- August 10, 2016 in Event report, Fellowship

Nika Aleksejeva presenting the project

Would you believe that a socially relevant, data-driven project can be accomplished without a budget, a big team and full-time staff? How? This question was the focus of the ‘How we did it?’ meetup in Riga, Latvia. It was the final point of #Velodati – a data-driven project that crowdsourced geographic data about cycling mobility in Riga, initiated and conducted by the School of Data Latvian local group (Datu skola).

The Datu Skola’s mission is to facilitate data-driven projects, conducted by journalists and activists, in collaboration with data analysts and programmers. The #Velodati project works as an example for such projects.

As a result an interactive online map was created showing the most busy cycling routes and how they overlap with the net of cycle tracks in Riga.

screenshot of the project

The project took nothing more than three months of one person’s work and 37 euros for posters, that encouraged Riga cyclists to share GPS recordings of their routes during the Riga Cycling Week in May. This was possible thanks to the open source and freemium tools used to create the crowdsourcing campaign, to clean and to visualize data. As a result, the online map got over 16.2K+ views (in a country of 1.9M population) and received coverage in eight national media outlets.

Here is a list of tools used for every part of the data project:

Crowdsourcing campaign Data collection Data cleaning Data visualization, publication
Froont campaign’s web page
Animaker video animation
Typeform survey sharing instructions
Google Docs data recording instructions
Zapier email automation
Gmail data compilation
“Save emails and attachments” Google Spreadsheet add-on organising data
QGIS data cleaning, formating
CartoDB map visualization
Tableau Public survey data visualization
Social media (Twitter, Facebook) social media campaign promotion of results

Each tool was demonstrated during the first part of the event. Attendees were particularly interested in Animaker, the video editing tool, Zapier, the cross-platform integration tool, the “Save emails and attachments” Google add-on, that organises email attachments automatically on Google Drive and CartoDB, a geographic data visualization tool.

Attendees also wanted to know why data vas visualized using points instead of lines and how a person who cleaned data made choices regarding which routes to keep or delete. Some also started to wonder how to improve the data crowdsourcing campaign for greater data submissions.

This was a great warm-up for the second part of the event. Participants split into three working groups to brainstorm about next steps for the project.

  • One group discussed how the project could be improved for more impactful, data-driven results.

  • Another group discussed how to lobby Riga municipality for better cycling infrastructure in the capital.

  • Finally, there was a group which brainstormed ideas for other data journalism projects.

All groups concluded that it’s useful to combine cycling data with data about public transportation. Bicycles can serve as a good alternative, not only for cars, but also for reaching areas of the city where public transportation is inconvenient. Research, such as that conducted as part of this project, could be used to make evidence-based decisions regarding improving citizen mobility in Riga.

The tools and methods used to produce the #Velodati story will be shared as learning modules on School of Data international page.


Event Name Velodati – How we did it?
Type meetup
Description a reflection on methodology and tools used to produce the “Velodati” story.
Trainers Nika Aleksejeva
Partners No
Location Riga, Latvia
Date July 5th
Audience journalists, cycling community representatives, analysts, civic society representatives, others
Number of attendees 23
Gender split NA
Duration 3 hours

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Data Harvest: Planting seeds of journalism collaboration

- June 10, 2016 in Event report, Fellowship

From a tiny sprout of 35 people who were interested in EU spending on Farming Subsidies six years ago, this year Data Harvest grew to a 350+ attendees conference that shared stories, inspirations, methods and practical skills with European data journalists. The famous #PanamaPapers investigation was in the center of everyone’s attention as it embedded the core values of modern investigation projects: cross-border collaboration between local newsrooms all around the world and data-driven computer-mediated approach that blends together with conventional investigative journalism methods.

Mar Cabra (ICIJ) invites newsrooms to collaborate on global data-driven investigations:

It’s all about collaboration

Panama Papers investigation sets a perfect example for fighting the so called “Gollum journalism” [reference from the Lord of the Rings trilogy] that presumes that journalists should keep every exclusive piece of information to themselves, even if a story crosses the borders.

“If the journalists from SZ had not shared the data with ICIJ and us with more than 370 journalists, Panama Papers would not have happened.” concludes Mar Cabra while sharing 10 tips for conducting collaborative investigations:

The notion of collaboration as a key to big scale data-driven investigations that can change things for good was floating in the air not only during the talks, keynotes and sessions. It was soaking through every conversation in the networking space, during the lunch and on the way to sessions that were scheduled across two floors in two buildings.

Back to the future

A day before the conference coders and data-savvy journalists could join a traditional hackathon dedicated for data projects about EU spending. This is how it all started.

Brigitte Alfter, the Editor at the, remembers the time when she was working as a correspondent for a Danish newspaper covering European affairs. At that time she realised that many so-thought national stories exceed borders of a single European country and affect the all EU member states all together. One of such matters is EU spending.

Therefore teams at the hackathon worked on data collection about EU cohesion funds, finalized a database about EU tenders, merged datasets about EU farming subsidy beneficiaries with illegal polluters as well as pulled data about EU sanctions and regional development funds. Some of the projects are expected to be continued, like Open Spending database crowdsourced by Open Knowledge and the data base about European tenders that keeps being updated since the previous hackathons.

Many tracks to go

Tailored for busy journalists, the conference lasted from Friday to Sunday. The three-day program consisted of eight thematic tracks.

The most hands-on track was Data Lab. The track consisted of step-by step hands-on tutorials for working with Excel, SQL, R, Python, Open Refine, Carto DB and many more. The coordinator of the track data journalist Crina Boros made sure, every attendee can progress from the basics working on Excel to analysing data programmatically in just three days (!!!).

Cross-border track shared the investigations conducted by international journalists working on a problem that concerns more than one country. One of such stories was “The Criminal Migrant Shipping Network”. The team of 9 journalists and experts managed to discover who is behind illegal shipping of migrants across the mediterranean using shipping database and researching the ownership structures behind the suspicious ships. The project was funded by the, the organiser of the event and promoter of cross-border investigations.

Many practical suggestions, learnings and inspirations were shared during the Data track, that covered every aspect of working with data. Besides this year special attention was also devoted for more administrative issues, as funding of data journalism projects, security while conducting an online research, how to do “wobbing” and cover Tax and Finance.

Planting relationships

Data Harvest is the most important event for data journalists in Europe. It’s steady growth ensures diversity of experiences, ideas and skills to combine for big scale data-driven investigations across borders. Its sessions inspire and build practical competences while the networking during, between and after the session builds connections that grow into relationships and friendship. There are not enough words to express the mood floating around. Perhaps images will do a better job. Though… yeah, better come and taste the fruits of Data Harvest next year. Meanwhile check resources from the conference here.

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