About a month ago, Sunlight asked the open government community to provide illustrative examples of how open data initiatives and digital transparency projects are having a meaningful impact on our societies. And even though the first round of submissions has passed, our call received unprecedented feedback; we decided to turn our crowdsourced spreadsheet into a living document, asking everyone to keep adding your projects to the repository! If you haven’t done so yet, you can submit your story through this link, by filling out this form or emailing it directly to firstname.lastname@example.org!
We are specifically interested in how users are empowered by these open government initiatives, and how open data and digital transparency projects are changing the behavior, relationships, activities and actions of users. While describing your work, we encourage you to focus on impact rather than output: the ways in which your project is making a meaningful change to your country, city or small community. Instead of basic project descriptions, we’re seeking evidence on how open data and technology help to influence governance and improve lives, both directly and indirectly. For example, if you have a tool that empowers investigative journalism by providing better access to publicly available data sets, describe how media outlets and journalistic communities use the tool for their investigations, or what types of collaborations have been inspired by your project, instead of citing the launch of the tool as the ultimate impact.
In the meantime, we at Sunlight are working hard to turn your great stories into a strong and powerful evidence base that empowers both advocacy and further research. As part of the same project — supported by the Open Data for Development Research Fund of the OGP Open Data Working Group — we are also in the midst of developing a methodological framework for measuring the social and political impact of open government projects.
Why a new method? Because we believe that even though these projects may differ tremendously, one thing seems to be common in all of them: Their impact cannot be described through linear “cause and effect” relationships. Open data and digital transparency initiatives mostly achieve changes through contributing to a complex ecosystem of stakeholders, such as journalists, think tanks, civil society organizations, app developers, government officials and voters. These contributions can be logically linked to a project’s activities, but they are not necessarily directly caused by them — thus, measuring their impact is incredibly difficult. The small nuances and complexities within these ecosystems (Is there an established investigative journalism culture? Are data literacy skills up to par? Is there a strong enough freedom of information regime? What’s the level of trust in government institutions?) will also largely determine whether an initiative will be successful or failing to achieve its goals. However, up to this point we haven’t even been able to better define what we mean by success, or what our long-term goals and theories of change are.
To tackle these challenges, Sunlight is now experimenting with an evaluation approach — outcome mapping — originally developed by IDRC for development projects. Instead of direct impact, this approach focuses on the changes within the behavior, relationships, activities or actions of the people, groups and organizations with whom these initiatives work directly. We are working closely with three organizations from the Global South to test this methodology and revise it a bit to better fit the needs and challenges of the open government field. We want to establish consensus on the macro-level changes these initiatives have helped to bring about, and eventually provide a framework for telling more powerful stories on our impact by unpacking theories of change.
Stay tuned for our findings, and again: Don’t forget to add your impact story to our database!