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Mexico’s Open Data Movement

Submitted by on August 15, 2011 – 9:39 pmNo Comment

Though still in its early days, the data journalism movement is taking hold in Mexico with the rise of two distinct but overlapping communities, Hacks/Hackers and OpenData.mx.

The global Hacks/Hackers network began in late 2009 in the San Francisco Bay Area with the mission to “create a network of journalists (“hacks”) and technologists (“hackers”) who rethink the future of news and information.” There are now chapters around the world including Mexico City and Buenos Aires. The Mexico City chapter was founded by media consultant Gabriel Sama who agreed to answer some questions about its formation and objectives:

IC: What is the back-story of the formation of the Mexican chapter of Hacks/Hackers? Who was involved in its formation?

GS: I was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford in 2009-2010 and one of the first people I met outside of the fellowship at Stanford was Burt Herman, who had been an AP correspondent for years and now wanted to start his own company. He also was planning to launch a series of “meetups” between the developer and the journalism communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. I went to the first Hacks/Hackers meeting and have been to several since.

In December 2010, after I finished my fellowship year, I began setting up to launch the idea in Mexico. My goals were very simple: 1) My expectations were very low. I wanted it to grow organically and set up a low bar for each meeting. For example, my expectations for the first meetup were just for it to happen. I did not care how many people came. 2) It had to be cheap in order to not depend on financing or third-party money. 3) It had to become a grass roots movement, which meant I had to move out of the way because it was naïve to think I could keep doing this from the distance.

The first meetup was held in December 16, 2010. I sent out a tweet asking for help and Esteban Gutierrez, a developer and database expert, offered to find a venue. He got us hooked up with Telmex Hub in downtown Mexico City for free. Then I invited Esteban and seven other people to speak. I figured each of them would invite at least one more person and that the attendance would be at least 15 people.

I organized the second event at the Tec de Monterrey Mexico City campus with the help of Maria Elena Meneses, an academic. In that meeting I hooked up with Roman Tienda, Arturo Aguilar and Paola Ricaurte, who have helped in organizing the following meetups.

IC: The first Hacks/Hackers group is from the San Francisco Bay Area where you are based. But you’re a native of Mexico City and have been instrumental in the development of the Mexican Hacks/Hackers chapter. What are some of the differences between the two groups?

GS: First, the concept of meetups, which are extremely common in the Bay Area, seem to be too informal for Mexicans. They expect flyers, invites, RSVPs and, even, to pay for events like this. The idea that these are free and somewhat spontaneous hasn’t taken root in Mexico City. Secondly, the variety and level of HH meetups in Silicon Valley are extremely difficult to emulate in Mexico. For instance, Facebook introduced their Facebook+Media initiative in a bay Area Hacks/Hackers meetup. It is tough to compete with that.

Even when my expectations are low and I know it has to grow organically and locally, the growth and participation has been pretty slow, considering the level of some of the things we’ve introduced and the fact that all five meetups have been completely free.

IC: What is the importance of data literacy among Mexican journalists? What do you expect the Mexico Hack/Hackers group to achieve in the coming years?

GS: My main goal has always been to spark collaboration between these two very different communities [of journalists and programmers]. My hope is to see new information projects spinning off from connections made at HH Mexico.

As per data literacy, Mexican journalists are going through the same experience that American journalists went through a couple of years ago: realizing that their trade has changed, which means that their skills and knowledge has to change too. I am surprised that journalists are still shying away from learning about new programming languages or digital tools just because they feel they won’t ever use them. HH is not about teaching journalism to developers or coding to journalists: it is about getting the two communities together so they can understand each other a little better when it comes to launching digital information projects.

Screen Shot 2011 08 15 at 2 18 PM

Google Developer Advocate Mano Marks offers a free workshop to Hacks/Hackers members on data journalism using Fusion Tables.

If Hacks/Hackers aims to bring programmers and journalists together in order to provide journalistic context to big data, then OpenData.mx is perhaps more focused on convening data enthusiasts from civil society, government, and the Internet at large. Its first two-day event was organized by Fundar, a transparency and human rights NGO (see our case study here), and Citivox, a for-profit startup that offers data collection and data analysis tools. Small groups took on particular datasets with the goal of making simple applications and visualizations that could lead to larger, more sustained projects. One group visualized spending data from the World Bank, which reveals that the majority of World Bank spending in Mexico is focused on public safety:

Screen Shot 2011 08 15 at 3 49 PM

Another team used Tableau to analyze how individual hospitals spent money on HIV/AIDS medicine. Octavio Ruiz documented how he extracted information about the government licensing of software programs from PDF files that were obtained using freedom of information requests.

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Programmers and social scientists working together at OpenDataMX.

Both Hacks/Hackers Mexico and OpenDataMX are consolidating a sense of community among their members before moving on to more ambitious projects, such as a sustainable open data portal or data-based investigative collaborations along the lines of Pro-Publica and the New York Times.

Still, there are signs that data-driven journalism is beginning to take off. The July cover of Nexos magazine featured a statistical analysis by José Merino into the distribution of homicides and the presence of the Mexican military. This month’s Nexos features another statistician-journalist, Diego Valle Jones, who looks closely at homicide statistics to challenge the notion that Tijuana has become safer in the past year. Social media, such as Twitter, are bringing stats-savvy political scientists like Javier Aparicio out of the ivory tower and into ongoing public policy debates.

The challenges listed by Gabriel Sama remain, but as data becomes increasingly accessible — and the tools more intuitive — we can expect Mexico’s open data movement to keep on moving along.

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