Building a Regional Data Community of Practice
One of the recommendations of the report on mapping the data economy in the MENA region was to establish a regional network of data professionals to brainstorm, share resources, participate in advocacy and collaborate on data projects. A planned regional workshop was scheduled where the seeding of this community would take place, along with the verification and dissemination of the mapping results.
Due to the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic, the workshop was postponed to be held, eventually, online in August, 2020 where the idea of the community was suggested and met with enthusiasm and support. People were asked to pick one or more themes (social justice, agritech, mobility, health and future of work) and for each theme, a focal point was selected to coordinate efforts and come up with ideas that could lead to concept notes to be turned into project proposals. A platform (data4mena.slack.com) was set up for communications, discussions, knowledge and resource sharing, and collaboration on concept notes. Meetings were arranged for focal points and across themes with support from the Center for Continuing Education at Birzeit University as part of the MENA Data project.
Some groups went farther than others in formulating project ideas and working toward mobilizing resources while others had limited progress beyond getting exposed to the data potential and putting some initial thoughts. As of the first quarter in 2021, MENA participated in the information disorder project through the network, a few concept notes were formulated and further discussions on new regional data projects are underway.
The network was reassessed after six months from its initiation, as a new initiative and in light of the continuing restrictions due to the pandemic, and lessons learned are being implemented to strengthen and expand this regional community. We identified points of strength and observed a number of challenges like grouping, capacity, communication and lack of institutional affiliation. New organizational, partnership and working modalities are being implemented and steps to expand and diversify membership are being taken to mitigate restrictions and amplify synergies.
The MENA region stands to benefit from a great data potential if efforts are exerted to inform and influence policies, build capacity and collaborate on solutions to regional issues using data and AI in a responsible fashion. The community network is a great tool to bring like-minded people together and think out data empowered solutions for the local and regional context. We look forward to a future built on data collaboration, innovation and responsibility where data divide is no longer an issue.