In the past two years I’ve attended two events endeavoring to bridge the gap between open data and a community via the creation of privately-ideated, publically-supported smartphone apps. The first was as a blogger for Plymouth Data Play Day in southwest England. The second was StartAPP 2.0 in Malta. Maybe it’s because Malta is a former British colony, or because “smart city” is a current buzzword, or because it takes a certain kind of person to tackle satellite imagery for the sake of traffic appeasement, but I was surprised the number of similarities between the events. And yet, the mostly social and ambient differences between the two reflect the same traits in their host geographies.
The Bigger Picture
The first similarity between Plymouth and Malta’s data-focused events is the fact that they are located in start-up friendly environments. In fact, Maltese start-up tax benefits are compared to the UK’s Seed Investment Enterprise Program. While in his article, “Malta: the pros and cons of building a start-up on the sunny island” Jeffrey Romano claims that Malta’s e-government system is leading in the EU, LinkedIn’s digital Economy and Society Index shows Malta’s overall technical environment as being much lower than that of the UK. This tool provides per-country snapshots of connectivity (how widespread, fast and affordable broadband is), Internet skills, the use of online activities from news to shopping, and how key digital technologies (e-invoices, cloud services, e-commerce, etc.) and digital public services such as e-government and e-health are developed across Europe.
However, it is on a social level where I see the greatest similarities between Plymouth and Malta. Mr. Romano explains the draw of Malta for many start-up companies: “Malta is a popular place to come and work in; the fantastic weather, lively nightlife and the fact that it is a family-friendly location has attracted many professionals to the island.” Insert [opportunity to explore nature] for “lively nightlife” and [port city] for “island” and he’s describing Plymouth.
Although both events were intended to be a grassroots way of opening data for public use, the event sponsors are the true impetus of the movement. Data Play Day was started by Plymouth City Council’s Planning Community. The focus of the event was “bridging the gap” between public private, councilman and Joe Public. Funding for the winning App ideas is picked from public pockets.
In his opening speech, MITA Innovation Hub leader Alex Borg described the happenstance that founded StartApp2.0. MITA partnered with the University of Malta to host the first StartApp event, titled 15k, which resulted in the provision thousands of euros investment funding to two app developers. Soon thereafter Alex was called by Eurisy, a European non-profit that supports the use of satellite applications in the public sector, the sponsor the next event. Finally is ZAAR, Malta’s first crowdfunding platform. With so many potential pockets it’s no surprised that StartAPP 2.0 will run in four total instalments, with winning apps being launched thousands in seed funding each time.
The biggest differences between Plymouth and Malta’s data events is the ambiance created by the planners and subsequent networking. StartAPP was hosted at SmartCityMalta, a hyper-modern retail/ office/ residential compound on the outskirts of Three Cities, Malta. And yet, when I glanced out the window I saw a traditional Maltese horse-and-cart [insert photo by Colin and Sarah Northway via Flickr saved into Website Content Manager]. The sign-in sheet contained scribbled names sans email addresses, and from what I could tell attendees were at least 50% affiliated with the pitching team and 60% affiliated with sponsor organizations. We sat in rows facing a Powerpoint. After all pitches had been delivered myself and other attendees indulged in Maltese tapas like mini ftira, croissants, and caviar-dusted bread, snacks intended to “to oil the socializing” (as stated in the MeetUp invitation), and washed down with a Cisk, of course. After being announced, the winning teams were whisked off to a debriefing. After 20 minutes waiting for them to emerge, I left, tucking my unused business cards back into my wallet.
In this way, StartAPP 2.0 felt world’s away from Plymouth’s inaugural Data Play Day event.There, I and other attendees spent as much of the day networking, conversing, and idea-generating as we did sitting and listening. The planners facilitated discussion and changed the schedule to match the mood. Plymouth College of Art, was the perfect venue for such a light-hearted atmosphere. For example, attendees used crayons to draw complex robotic diagrams. There were sign-in boards and mailing lists and Polaroid pictures and play-times. Ironically, Plymouth’s more socially oiled attendees also ate more oily fare, scarfing pizza like high schoolers. It’s true that not a single sustainable app model was generated at Plymouth Data Play Day. No one left there with cash in-hand. But, I left Plymouth’s event feeling connected.
The Social Media
If there is one thing the Maltese business people do well it’s communicating on social media. On the first page of Alex’s Powerpoint the StartAPP hashtag, #startapp2pit, was displayed. It seemed to play on the Maltese affinity for racing and served as its own call to action. Throughout the evening StartAPP event organizers tweeted updates and attendees weighed in. I only wished the chatter in the room was as great as that online.
I chuckled to myself when comparing the StartAPP hashtag to Plymouth’s initial confusion over what hashtag to use (at one point there were two different “official” hashtags). Many attendees showed up to Data Play Day without a smartphone. I was asked to blog through the event but struggled to find a place to tell the story on my website. No one seemed able to tag or categorize the day.
Despite the fact that both Plymouth Data Play Day and Malta’s StartAPP 2.0 supported the same basic premise, they presented dramatically different experiences. To me, this can only be a reflection of the environment. Plymouth is following on the coat tails of recognized Open Cities like Bristol. Plymouth is a smaller player with nothing to lose, humble even in a society that values humility. Malta is a country recently recognized for having the highest GDP in Europe. It’s keen to professionalize itself on a European front. Both geographies are prime open data start-up spaces. The question is, who’s apps will appear on my Smartphone first?
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
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