Jumpstart Georgia | From opening data up, to communicating the data to everyone

Jumpstart Georgia is no stranger to the Edgeryders community. When we landed in Tbilisi with the Spot the Future adventure one year ago, their representative Eric inspired immediately with visualizing data, or cracking data open locked behind government walls.

Although I've known Eric for quite a while, the past two years we've been involved more and more on a work related level as well. I was able to get IDP development organization CHCA to sit down with Jumpstart and get help in their advocacy and outreach. That same year I participated in Jumpstart's free Coding for Girls workshop sessions. And besides involving Jumpstart with Edgeryders, pedestrian rights organization Iare Pekhit (where I am currently a paid community organizer) also works with Jumpstart on a regular bases.

Eric works for JumpStart since 2010. When he first came JumpStart it was still called Open Maps Caucasus (OMC), and they were solely working on mapping the entire country. He joined JumpStart because of the technology and community approach the organization was involved in; he thought the idea of community mapping was brilliant.

Unfortunately, shortly after the mapping process came to an end, and Jumpstart needed to redesign their reason of existence. 

We had all this capacity, technical capacity, but we didn’t know what to do. We weren’t funded to do mapping. We had a pretty long transition period for about a year and a half. We worked from project to project to make ends meet, which I hated, because I don’t think organizations should exist to put food on people’s table.

An NGOs job is to put itself out of business.

A lot of the old staff left. During the mapping period we had around 1000 people, directly or through community involvement, to rely on and we went down to 5 or 6 people.

But in 2012 this idea popped into my head. This was the result of mapping. Mapping is the ultimate form of visualization. It is easy to see a map that has massive amount of data in a small place and you are able to interpret it and make decisions based on that information. And I don’t know a lot of visuals that can have that level of complexity and be that intuitive for people to understand. So I started thinking about other ways and other environments in which visualizations could have an impact. At this time I cam across some data journalism blogs.

What really dawned on me was the intersection of important social issues, technology, visualizations, and impact. When I looked around our local context (which was just Georgia at the time), I was disappointed to see how little progressive journalists and NGOs were. NGOs would spending months and put out reports that no one would ever read. You do twelve months of research and you write your report and it’s gone. It really pissed me off that the knowledge was gone. And I thought there needs to be an alternative.

So we started visualizing Georgia’s local news, small things.

Right now, what Jumpstart does is they work with data, not only maps. They work with all kinds of data and visualize them. Their goal is to create platforms, tools, to speak to target audiences in a useful way and engage them about issues that are important.

For the past couple of years we’ve worked on a variety of subjects, health – hepatitis C – contraception – abortion, to election data, to election data mismanagement. Not unlike any media organization, we work on so many issues.

Also, I think in the process, what we’ve done is understood what the data landscape is:

  • what is the the catalog of data in the country
  • how can we exploit it and leverage it to improve communication around issues that people need to know about.

And simultaneously we do now a lot of training sessions with organizations on a variety of subjects: data journalism, data analysis, all things that we’ve become quite good at.

We are a small organization, we can’t really compete with organizations like Tableau Public, but what we’ve done is create a number of tools that have a fixed target audience that fill a gap that isn’t currently filled.

We’ve built StoryBuilder last year to enable people to do log form mixed media stories. It is very successful, and its being used all over the world. Every day there are new stories on it.

One of the key things, and this is true for all our products, they are all free and open source. We host our own version, but we make the platform available to others to install.

And this is important to me.

Eric explains me why communicating data to people in understandable formats is crucial.

I think people should be treated equally and should have equal access to everything, and this can be extended quite far into a lot of areas.

Resource equality, economic equality, education equality, safety, legal protection equality; it can be a lot of things. I don’t think a lot of people and organizations really understand what this means. A lot of people want equal access to public information, but they don’t get to decide what is public, so it’s not equal.

Some groups decide what is public and open, but that is not equal.

You get access to all things in the vending machine, but we don’t choose what goes into the vending machine.

From a data perspective I think that’s important. Equal access to decision makers, equal influence of decision making. It can be extended to so many things, property, clean water.

I think the work that people do should strive for equal access for everyone everywhere to everything. So that they’re not unequal distributed among them, where elites with small percentages get advantage over vast majorities of population. That for me is unacceptable.

It also leads to quite a lot of negative consequences in society that also impact that elite, which is violence, revolution, high swings and cycles of increase and depression.

The more we strive to provide as much as possible to as many people as possible in general we are all better off. We can make better decisions, we can choose for ourselves have control of ourselves, our families, the people that matter.

What Jumpstart works on and why they do it, that is quite obvious. So, how do they work to achieve those goals then?

About the workflow at Jumpstart, we’re highly flexible internally but we’ve got workflows depending on what and with whom were working.

Obviously when we do our own work, when we have funds we do our own work, and we do have those funds quite often. Every Monday morning we have an editorial review board. That is where we decide, we discus what we’ve been doing, and we talk about whats been happening and what we want to work on.

Lets say we want to do a story on crime: we immediately look at the data landscape, we look at all the data is out there, we will look who has data and request it right away, and we see if there is not if we can collect the data ourselves.

That is our own work, it can be a story, or a tool.

For example with Xtraktr, a tool that we built which makes data publicly available, accessible, and explorable, and usable.

We also talk about how we can advertise and market these things.

It helps that on our team we have three full-time designers, we’ve got two full-time developers and one half-time developer, we have two full-time researchers, and when we approach an issue we usually do it all together. So we sit down at the table and we brainstorm.

If we work with a partner, we bring the partner in. We try to get them to experience what it actually means to creatively approach an issue with the idea of engagement and communication.

But working with partners is not always easy. It is difficult to make them understand why the work processes go as they go. The partners often don't know what they really want, they often don't know how to communicate. They say we want to communicate to everybody, but that is impossible, there is not one universal 'people', Eric explains me. 

In that case we will focus on what data they have, what is the message they want to communicate and to whom they want to communicate. And then we try to come up with creative ways using different technologies to then do that. And it doesn’t have to be just infographics, it can be interactive visualizations, video games, street art, performance art. There are a whole variety of mechanisms to communicate information and data. We try not to limit ourselves.

Some organizations just refuse to do things, but sometimes we get organizations that do want to learn they get involved and that is quite fun. Our partners work on important social issues, we don’t do just commercial work, these opportunities are great we work on issues that are very important, and by and large that is great, that’s when we have the most success. Ultimately we would love to do our own stuff and collaborate with people to do that stuff, because we recognize we are not experts in everything.

Although Jumpstart is able to sustain themselves with different projects. They could use support in different ways. Most importantly: human resources. Or, in other words, volunteers.

We could use more volunteers, in a number of ways, volunteers who want to research, crowdsource data.

For example, recently we collected data on sounds and volumes around the city and after that we did an infographic on sound pollution and how it effects your hearing. Projects like that, there is no data on it. It would be more successful if we had more data on it.

Sometimes we need help on fact checking all the data, for example the Azerbaijani political prisoners project, we had volunteer and meydan.tv to do it, but more would’ve been better.

Jumpstart is very busy, we are a small group of people and we dont have time to have representatives at all the discussions and meetings both with civil society and the government and we need to. If we had volunteers that could help us be present, take notes and share our insights and input into that process we’d be a lot better off. We tried to find funding but its not sustainable. The only way we can be present if we are funded full time.

But we share all our assets with our volunteers, it’s a give and take.

Eric tells me that there are a lot organizations doing similar things to what they are doing.

There are a lot of media organizations elsewhere that are doing amazing data-journalism work in South America: nation, media organizations in Mexico.

And then there is Open Knowledge Foundation, Sunlight Foundation. They’re all doing similar work on different scales and different scopes. All these organizations are really open to collaboration and I think that it’s important.

Georgia locally, Elva has been doing most of what we’ve done, good for them. Locally the market is not that big to compete, but they’ve found markets elsewhere and are based in Tbilisi.

I think Transparency International Georgia is doing a lot of work as well but I don’t think they realize the potential. They do really amazing research but then the messaging could be a lot better We’ve been trying working with them in the past but then also they aren’t really well managed and things fall through the cracks. Fortunately they are aware of that.

But I don’t see a lot of organizations locally doing what we do.

Creative approaches there are many. If we look at the Guerrilla Gardeners movement, a group of people that believe in something and use creative approaches to solve environmental and urban problems, and I think that’s amazing. I think Iare Pekhit is doing similar positive approaches, creative approaches in communication and engagement. I think they are great ideas, that work locally, they are very local, but I don’t think it’s working in isolation, so that’s good.

I see some organizations picking up their boot straps and really trying to improve things. I mean, CRRC is being forced through funding to search for more sustainable funding and engaging approaches, ISET similarly.

I think the kind of work that we do is transferable to almost any sector. The educational sector needs it the most here in Georgia. But the methodologies that we use can be used: what are you trying to achieve, how do you get there, what tools do you use. Those can be used in the educational sector as well. Using technology, creativity, design, data, to tackle social issues.

We try really hard to partner with organizations and help out as we can.

JumpStart's long-term perspective is to continue innovating and trying new things.

Ultimately, the concepts are simple. We have goals we want to achieve. We have stories we want to tell, and we want to try new and interesting ways to do those things.

We are going to continue working, and we would love more support from all sides to improve transparency of agencies and organizations and that includes the data that they have. We will build tools and support organizations that are willing to share their data and make it public. So that people can use the data how they want and not how they want other people to use it. This would help us out a lot and other people as well.

If people care about the issues of transparency and decision making in a democracy, then they can either support it or be a force against it.

And we will continue building tools such as Xtraktr to help encourage transparency of data and public access.