How is Data Changing Governance in Columbia?
Access to data is changing the way in which we all work. We sat down for a chat with Aura Cifuentes, Director of the Public Innovation Team at the National Development Department for the Government of Colombia.
Hello Aura, can you tell us a bit more about your profession?
I am the Director of the Public Innovation Team at the National Development Department for the Government of Colombia. I have a degree in Government and International Relations from the Externado University of Colombia and a Master’s degree in Public Affairs from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris – Sciences Po.
What do your day-to-day professional activities look like?
The Public Innovation Team’s mission is to strengthen experimentation capacities in the public sector, and to connect different stakeholders with public innovation initiatives and mechanisms. For the first time in Colombia, we have a strategy regarding public innovation outlined in the President’s national roadmap (i.e. Plan Nacional de Desarrollo). In that sense, my day to day looks like an agenda full of meetings with my team and with external stakeholders from across the country. We are going through a historic moment in Colombia regarding public innovation and it requires a lot of pedagogy and awareness raising.
How would you define data?
As the most precious asset in the world. I think that realizing how fast the world is evolving because of technology and that we have to do something about it, is the best thing that could have happened to us. Especially for the public sector. Data allows us to have more transparent governments thanks to open data. It allows us to make better decisions thanks to the data science approach. It enables us to identify patterns thanks to artificial intelligence and it helps us design public policies based on evidence. Thanks to these initiatives we have gained valuable knowledge and experience. We have seen what works and what doesn’t. The current discussions are no longer about the amount of data produced but the amount of quality data that we need to open. Data has allowed us to put on the table key debates about the development of our societies.
How do you incorporate data in your day-to-day professional activities?
I am a big fan of data visualization. I have to admit it! Because of our subject, public innovation, we talk a lot about experimentation, iteration, or prototyping. Sometimes, this involves very technical language. We therefore try to explain that public innovation is innovation aiming to solve public challenges and, for that, we need strategies to communicate better. We need a visual design approach to raise awareness and data visualization is a great tool to do that. By publishing and sharing maps, charts or diagrams regarding public innovation projects, we send powerful messages such as “Look, you can do it! You are not alone. You can innovate”. Everything we do in our team is translated into a dataviz. It is one of our main communication channels when we try to reach citizens. It also enables us to become a more accountable organization.
Have you always been data-enthusiastic?
Yes I have. Or at least since my first professional experience. I was living in Paris at the time, I was 24 years old, and I had the opportunity to work at Etalab – the french Prime Minister’s taskforce for open data, open government and data science. It was a life changing experience for me. They brainwashed me… In a good way! I realized how important data was and the power that you can have (no matter which sector you represent) once you open data and reuse it. Since then, more than a data-enthusiastic, I have become a data-believer. All along my professional career, working as the director for the Colombian national Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory, as a consultant, and at the multinational Gfi Informatique on the topic of smart cities, I have been a strong data supporter.
How has the access to data changed the way in which you see your profession?
Since a very young age, I knew I wanted to work with people and to work for my country. So, for me, the public sector was a natural choice and that is why I decided to study public affairs and international relations. However, back then, I had no clue that I would be so closely involved with tech. I was very biased. I thought that my profession would lead me to more community centered projects. I was wrong and thanks to data I realized that. Access to data taught me that by promoting these strategies, you can have a real impact on people’s lives. Sometimes data-driven public policies are more powerful than working in the streets with communities (this is not to say that one is more important than the other). It does mean however that access to data is, in a certain way, access to some basic human rights.
What kind of skills do you use to incorporate data in your work?
As a leader I focus a lot on strengthening my leadership and communication skills. Both skills are very important to incorporate data in my work. First of all, I have worked hard to form multidisciplinary teams where skills are at least equally important as a solid professional record. In that sense, I have hired people who have practical experience with data: including the cleaning, mining and structuring of databases and the reuse, crossing and analysis of data. I am fortunate to have data scientists on my team. This is a very sought after type of profile, which is also difficult to attract to the public sector.
Second of all, I am very interested in strengthening the capacity to build narratives. In the public sector we are very good at informing but very weak at communicating. Storytelling is essential and for this, having quality data is very important. With good data you can tell the best stories.
Looking into the future, what kind of impact do you think data can have on government innovation and public policy?
Without data there will be no innovation. I believe that current developments are demonstrating that we need teams motivated and interested in data to build a sustainable future. In my field of work, I see it every day. Public innovation projects require data to be scalable and measurable. Without data we have no metrics and without metrics, innovation is only smoke. To foster experimentation skills, you need robust knowledge management strategies and (surprise!), these are also based on data. That is why it is so important that in public policy we start adopting interoperable information systems and less rigid structures where lessons can be shared. With these two things done, we are in the best position to make evidence-based and user-centered public policy.