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Data needs of resilient communities

from outer space

The New Zealand Open Data Meetups, despite COVID-19 lockdown, were able to safely gather and talk about experiences, data frustrations and ideas to help in these unusual times.

Meetup in lockdown

They say “necessity is the mother of invention” but sometimes necessity just helps you see that you’ve always had the option to do things differently. Our current COVID-19 lockdown situation has helped us realise a new opportunity.

The Open Data Programme coordinates Open Data Meetups in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Keeping the fire lit in each city meetup is hard work when you’re based in Wellington. We had successfully held an Open Data, Open Potential event and were beginning to think about Meetups for 2020 and getting out to our communities beyond Wellington.

Then BAM! Before we knew what was happening, we were in lockdown and nobody was going anywhere! So much for getting the meetups started up again any time soon… But a few days later I got an email from Meetup reminding us that we can do virtual meetups. DOH! Why didn’t we think of that?!

Our need to help is linked to our own resilience

As the new reality of life in a bubble under lockdown started sinking in, along with the realisation of all the potential consequences down track, I felt a need to help but I didn’t know how. About that time, I became aware of James Samuel’s hunt for better data for the COVID-19 Dashboard. They had been scraping data from the static COVID-19 webpage about confirmed cases and spending time manually splitting up the information into data elements. Presenting this data in their dashboard helped people picture what was going on.

Through the actions of others and acknowledging what I was feeling myself, I realised an important part of resilience for people is being able to contribute in the time of crisis. For many, data is something they can use to help, by helping us to understand the problem or situation better and predict outcomes, or by using the data to provide a solution or smart service that can help people.

Governments around the world need to move from ‘information by default’ to ‘data by default’, particularly when it comes to communicating with the public. Clear information can then be derived from the data, as we have seen each day on television. But much more can be done with that data by others when it’s made open and reusable.

Meet-up of Meetups

This set the theme for our first virtual Meetup earlier this month: open data for resilient responses. This was essentially a meet-up of Meetups, bringing all four cities together in one virtual place. A virtual get-together allowed us to hold the Meetup later in the evening, with the added convenience of staying home rather than having to commute back into town.

Doing the meetup virtually meant we needed to experiment. How could we get productive engagement and participation? Our previous experience with video meetings showed that with large groups they became a broadcast of messages from a select few.

So, the approach we tried out was:

  1. Introduction and setting the scene.
  2. Form random breakout rooms of 4 to 5 people for focussed discussion.
  3. Use Google spreadsheet with a tab for each breakout room to record key points.
  4. Join back together to hear from each breakout group (with the spreadsheet shared by the host).
  5. Question time (facilitated by the host).
  6. Summarise action points and wrap up.

Our experiment went very well, and a show of hands indicated that people enjoyed the approach and would do it again. Key to the success was the breakout room functionality provided by Zoom.

Discussions on data

The breakout groups randomly thrown together discussed a range of topics but interestingly they independently covered many similar things. Some of what they talked about included:

Data quality

The need for quality data was sought by many. In fact, access to data rather than static information pages was the first request. Preferably that data would be broken down into useful elements rather than have all the elements in the same text field. For example, flight numbers, date of arrival, and origin of travellers as separate pieces of data, rather than all together in one field about travel information.

Consistency in the data is also needed. For example, using one type of geography such as Territorial Authorities or District Health Boards, not a combination of both. It’s difficult to display both together on a map. In fact, it came up in discussion that the ultimate relatable geography for people was suburbs. (The best source of suburb boundary data, if it were open, would be the NZ Localities dataset from Fire and Emergency New Zealand.)

The importance of provenance came up, knowing how the data was collected and how values are defined. This was highlighted in a recent NZ Herald article by Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, about how different testing approaches influence the number of COVID-19 cases and the variation in how COVID-19-related deaths are recorded in different countries.

Use of private data

It became apparent that people’s perception and tolerance regarding the use of private data can shift in a crisis, for example the use of mobile phone location data to trace contacts or monitor movement during lockdown. Open data and protecting privacy go together, as data should not be open if it is not protecting privacy. However, we are witnessing that border being crossed in different places around the world, and that is challenging us all on where we stand.

Through discussion, we learnt that some of us are willing to give ground under the right circumstances and for the public good, while others are concerned that any ground lost on protecting privacy during a crisis might not be regained. Everyone agreed that transparency of process, and strong rules and governance are needed if private data is to be used, as well as some public conversation to gain social licence.


When thinking beyond tracking the current cases of COVID-19 to tracking impact and recovery, does, or will, the government have all the data it needs, or will the private and charity sectors need to be more open with data to support government decision making? How much will we need to rely on all of us to be more open with our data? Are we going to need to crowdsource data, and how can we ensure widespread participation that gives reliable and useful results?

Digital divide

Being under lockdown, working from home, and schools moving into remote access mode, has highlighted the digital divide. Good open data about broadband coverage and uptake combined with statistics on computer devices in homes can support government and community initiatives to meet needs. The current situation is a reminder that the divide is still there and has shed light the its size. In that discussion it was highlighted that the digital divide is not just about access to devices and broadband, but that there are people for whom using a device poses a challenge for a range of reasons. Data can help us identify the scale of those challenges and find ways to support the inclusion of everyone.

Virtual is viable

The virtual meetup was a successful experiment and provides a viable complement to in-person meetups in the future, having the advantages of less commuting and enabling people outside the 4 cities to participate.

Our discussions identified some ways to be more prepared, to be more data ready for next time, for as Dame Anne Salmond points out, scientists have long suggested that due to shrinking habitats diseases are more likely to jump between species.

Our thanks to everyone who participated in the virtual meetup, and if you want to be involved next time and haven’t already joined, please join your nearest Open Data Meetup in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch or Dunedin.


Photo by NASA on Unsplash


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