Thinking outside the box: What do open data, the end of Communism and Good Friday have in common?

Posted on March 16, 2010 by

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Come with me on a journey and I’ll show you…..

In the mid-1980s, I was in the middle of my studies at Belgrade University. It was a few years after the death of Tito. Change was in the making. The surface waters seemed calm, but underneath, the currents were raging. It was a great time for creativity. The old socialist system with its communist ideology was disappearing. The old ideological constraints were disappearing fast, but the new ones –introducing nationalism and mass-markets – had not yet arrived. This interim period was one when individual insight and free thinking were real and substantive. Unfortunately, as we know with the benefit of hindsight, the opportunity was lost and Yugoslavia slipped into turmoil.

In 1985, I was given a sociology assignment. It was the usual boring, theoretical stuff but I wanted to have some fun. In the suburb of Belgrade where I lived there were three distinct communities: a village where workers were cultivating land as yet unspoiled by anarcho-urbanism; a middle/working class area populated by people who came from different parts of Yugoslavia to work in the new factories in Belgrade; and the newest and poshest part which was populated mainly by police officers.

Sociologically speaking these were three completely different entities with different cultures. Of particular importance was their relationship to religion and nationalism, neither of which were particularly popular during the Communist era. Those working the land were traditionally religious (more traditionally than substantially). The middle class, as usual, was in the middle and could go either way.  Most – if not all – police officers were ardent followers of the Communist Party dictum.

But something started happening: farmers were being careful as usual; factory workers were confused; and the police officers started becoming more nationalistic and increasingly religious. Like canaries in a mine they sensed the changes coming. They started singing nationalist songs at their parties. Their children started using more Cyrillic than Latin (the two competing alphabets at the time). I wanted to test these signals of change but how could I do this scientifically? Interviews were not an option.

I had an idea. In each of these community areas there were local shops. I went to the three managers and asked them to keep track of the sale of fish in the days leading up to Good Friday. All three of them looked at me strangely, but they agreed to help nonetheless. They even provided me with data from the previous year. As I expected, there was a large increase in the sale of fish in the police area and relatively stable sales in the two others.

Nobody cared about my research findings. But these three pieces of apparently unconnected items: open data, the end of Communism and Good Friday – when viewed together, could have signalled that an important part of the state apparatus had already started shifting towards nationalism (nationalism and religion are very often interlinked in Serbia). Unfortunately, this was proven a few years later when Milosevic came to power and set in motion a time of destruction that would last for almost 15 years.

My research was a rudimentary example of how combining different datasets can provide policy insight. Open data initiatives in the USA, the UK and other countries offer new possibilities for better informed policy-making. The first examples have started appearing mainly at local level (e.g. the study of patterns in criminality). More needs to be done at international level. We can learn more about development assistance, climate change, and conflict resolution if we start combining existing data more effectively…if we start thinking outside the box.

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