Open Data Day DC, 2014

published by Eric Mill on
Photo credit: Marcela Palma/Flickr

I got to help organize Open Data Day here in DC again for 2014, alongside Josh Tauberer, Kat Townsend, Sam Lee, and Julia Bezgacheva. Open Data Day is an international event in its fourth year (DC's third), and this year spanned over 100 cities across the world.

We doubled our attendance from 2013, pulling in over 300 people on Saturday and 200 people on Sunday. We did an informal hands-raised poll Saturday morning, and most of the attendees had never been to a hackathon.

To get a sense of the projects people worked on, check out the lovely video above (made by Paul Brigner and Josh), and read the project wrapup page on our Hackpad. Sam Lee did a great summary and project roundup over at the World Bank blog. My colleagues at Sunlight contributed to a census of US local open data, a website for foreign lobbying data, and a new geographic approach to OCRing PDFs.

As in 2013, our approach was to focus on getting people together and building their momentum -- rather than getting people to finish "apps". There was no judging or prizes, no pizza or soda, and a clear welcome to anyone without a technical background. Josh's description of 2013 is still worth repeating:

Our goals were to strengthen the open data community, to foster connections between people and between projects, and to emphasize problem statements over prototypes and solutions.

To give people more time to work together, we decided to let the event spill over to a second half-day on Sunday. We honestly didn't know whether anyone would bother coming back, but with 200 returning folks, it totally worked out. The principal downside was that we only pushed groups to finally present their projects and document them on the Hackpad on Sunday afternoon, so I'm sure we missed the chance to properly record and promote the work of some Saturday-only attendees.

In 2013, I ran a workshop in the morning offering an "Introduction to Open Data" for non-coders. We got a real positive response, so I ran the workshop again this year -- and expanded it to a full track of workshops running throughout the event. Altogether, we had:

  • Introduction to Open Data, by me. We learned about how URLs work, how to read JSON, and how to poke through an API. I built a JSON to CSV converter so people could see their work. You can read my personal notes from the workshop.
  • Introduction to Open Collaboration, by Leah Bannon. Attendees learned how to take advantage of GitHub to publish work to the Internet, and make other people's work better.
  • Introduction to Python, by Shannon Turner. Shannon walked newcomers to programming through the basics of Python, one of the most humane and user-friendly programming languages around. Check out her lessons and materials and her slides from the event.
  • Open Mapping, by Max Richman. Max took attendees through user-friendly mapping tools like Mapbox, QGIS, and Github. Check out his presentation and the workshop materials (zip).

All the workshops were packed full. Our three Saturday workshops each had 80-100+ people, and Max, who kindly allowed us to schedule him on Sunday morning, had over 70. Some people attended all four. Those are huge numbers to me, and it felt like a great way to give newcomers to hackathons an empowering, unintimidating way to participate and grow.

My colleague Rebecca Williams said before the event that "Open Data Day is the new Earth Day" — certainly a bold sentiment, but one that resonated with many of us. Personally, I was greatly gratified to be a part of such a huge, positive global event, and to demonstrate that it can scale higher and wider every year.