Civic tech hackathon takes on census data

On this year’s “National Day of Civic Hacking”, over 50 people came to downtown innovation lab Phandeeyar to make recently released census data more digestible.

Taking a closer look at census data. Photo: Catherine Trautwein / The Myanmar TimesTaking a closer look at census data. Photo: Catherine Trautwein / The Myanmar Times

The day-long hacking marathon came on the heels of the Union government’s online publication of census data from last year’s enumeration. While access to that information only requires a few clicks, taking in what’s on Excel data sheets gets complicated – which is where hackers can help.

At the June 6 event, which lasted for the working day, loose groups worked on different projects, including an application program interface (API) for calling up census data. Some “cleaned” the information – improving its machine-readability – while others built infographics representing situations such as disability rates by age group in one region.

Phandeeyar founder David Madden, whose organisation Code for Change Myanmar put on the country’s first two hackathons, said plans for a civic hackathon last year had been scrapped due to data constraints.

“We had to redesign that first hackathon because we just didn’t have any good data to work with,” he said. “And now here we are 15 months later and there’s this data set ... which has some really, really important information in it.”

“The objective of today is to make that data more accessible and more easily understood for the rest of the country.”

Though having more information about what’s happening in Myanmar across issues and sectors such as economics, housing conditions, education and migration benefits both people and policy-makers, a data onslaught can leave those attempting to analyse it with their heads spinning.

“Data can be overwhelming when there’s so much of it,” said World Bank senior poverty economist Reena Badiani-Magnusson. “How do you portray stories about Myanmar?”

The census data especially, put online in so many Excel documents, makes for a difficult time pursuing a particular direction.

“When you look at the tabulations, the enormous number of columns, the enormous number of rows, there’s so many cells of data that you might find yourself going a little bit cross-eyed,” Ms Badiani-Magnusson said. “You need to work out how to use it, and that’s the hard part.”

The census has made an impressive amount of information available, and Ms Badiani-Magnusson said that the project had widened the possibilities for questions and analysis in Myanmar – which can lead to action.

“This is how we use the data as we look at ... [sectors] and think, ‘How can we use the census data to inform what we know about Myanmar and the kind of programs that we run?’” she said.

“Data, as was said by David before, seems dry ... but it’s people like you with your creativity, your way of adapting, to make this data into something that is alive, into something that brings colour and purpose to a process of development,” said UNFPA program specialist Petra Righetti, addressing the crowd in opening remarks at the event.

At the end of last month, the Union government of Myanmar released data gathered from Myanmar’s first census in more than 30 years. The project, supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), cost more than US$60 million and took longer than three years to complete. The UNFPA said that next steps include spreading information and crafting “thematic reports” on sectors such as education, fertility and disability. Information on religion, ethnicity, occupation and industry remains outstanding.

With the data’s publication, the floodgates have opened – and on June 6, those gathered at Phandeeyar helped direct the flow’s course.

“I see that the census data has a major importance for all the people here in Myanmar. And then I see the government has released the data in raw data tables,” said 17-year-old student and hackathon participant Ko Phyu Min Thu. “It’s clear no one can easily assess or recognise what’s happening.”

“We need people – developers and other contributors – to make apps or websites or 3D maps that will let people access the information. I came here to contribute.”

As hackathon director Ko Yan Naung Oak spoke with The Myanmar Times, two of the event’s participants walked over to display the progress they had made in the morning hours.

“We just want to show off,” Ma Phyu Hninn Nyein joked. “This is the preliminary thing that we’re doing.”

On her laptop was an interactive Excel document that broke down population data into charts – a visual representation of information that hadn’t been available days prior.

“We were hoping if one of these things came out of today it would be a success,” Ko Yan Naung Oak said.