To all my fellow nerds: What community can teach us about teaching open data!

I love data. I’ve spent most of my adult life collecting, analyzing and visualizing data. Today I work with creating, promoting and understanding data-driven service innovation. Saying I’m a nerd, especially when it comes to open data, is not an overstatement. My conviction is, or at least use to be, that data can solve any problem.

Being a nerd is not necessarily something bad, and if you only hang around other nerds life can tend to be kind of uncomplicated. And especially within the open data community nerds like me tend to flourish. Numbers and technology makes for a fertile nerd-soil.

But being a nerd sometimes limits your ability to convey your passion for the subject to people outside of your bubble. It also give you a birds eye view on matters you need to be close at heart. This is something that our work with the Horizon 2020 project Open4Citizens, the local health care system and the Open Data Lab at Kronparken in Karlstad, Sweden has made me, sometimes painfully, aware of. There has been more than one occasion at civic center, local library or the primary health center when I, in all my well-meaning nerdyness, have gone on rants on SDK:s, PSI:s and API:s, only to realize that I lost the crowd at “Let me tell you about open data”.

But thankfully for me, our partners and friends at Kronoparken don’t give up on people — even if they are far-off data nerds. And through dialogue, trial and error and a little common sense, the amazing community organizers, civic leaders, doctors and nurses of Kronoparken has taught me some important lessons on how to teach open data.

Or in other words: how to operate outside of the bubble:

1 . Remember that data is information — not technology

Open data is information. It’s information about the tenement houses, the public transportation and, at heart for our part of the project, the health status of the community. This is something that people care about and want to learn more about. So if you talk too much about the technical aspect you exclude those who have no or little experience from the technical realm. Save the tech-talk for the “techies”.

2 . Promote data literacy as a social movement

When public schools were introduced 120–150 years ago, one of the main objectives was to teach the general public to read and write. Promoting literacy was a way to protect workers and the commons from being tricked and cheated by opportunistic factory owners and profiteers. In the same way, promoting data literacy is a way to address the inequalities within today’s digital age. A lot of big companies own and use our data, and data is starting to become a commodity. The more people who get involved in the discussions around data and open data, the bigger the force to challenges the existing paradigm. And if data literacy becomes a social movement, we might shift the paradigm all together.

3 . It’s OK to be a nerd — but not to be a jerk

Let’s face it: nerds can be a pain in the butt. We are condescending and we think that we know better than everyone else. But when it comes to understanding life in the local community, nobody knows it better than the people within said community. No data can change that. So whenever the urge to show off your god-like data skills: resist. Even if your nerd-self screams for self-affirmation, the key to working with the community is to be a part of the community. And although the most tolerant people can put up with a nerd every now and then, nobody likes a jerk.

4 . User-centric beats data-centric every time

When you work with data, everything tends to start and end with data. But out there in the real world, in health care (), in schools, in NGOs, putting the user as a focal point for the process is key. If there is no need to address, then there is no problem to be solved. So be sure to start by asking the community what they want, need and feel inspired by before you start accumulating data. You have to leave your birds eye perspective and move into reality. Because otherwise you’re just going to stand there in the end with a fine looking spreadsheet and no-one to show it to.

5 . If data can’t solve the problem — don’t panic.

In the Karlstad part of Open4Citizens, we focus on healthcare and preventive health. And there are may challenges and never enough data when it comes to healthcare and preventive health. And more and more people and organizations are realizing open data’s potential for improving both personal health and the healthcare system in general. But the more you learn about the healthcare system, the health care professionals everyday situations and the needs and idéas of patients and the general public you understand that open data won’t solve all the problems. It can perhaps make for better services when it comes to preventive health. It can for sure help the healthcare system of the best urgent care clinic to better understand the general public. And it most definitely can help empower citizens. But in the end, your health comes down to the basics; exercise, socialising with friends and family, enjoying the good things in life with moderation and finding meaning in your jobs or everyday activities happiness. Data can perhaps measure these things — but not ensure and provide them.

Petter Falk is a strategical project manager and service designer @RISE Service Labs. RISE ServiceLabs is an operations project partner for the County Council of Värmland and ExperioLab in the Horizon 2020-project Open4Citizens. Read more at

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