By James Lawrence - Georgia - 1 month ago

Tbilisi DataFest 2018 - Diving into the Data Deep-end

Wednesday, November 7, saw the kick-off of the second annual DataFest, the first data conference in the Caucasus. Spanning over three days, the festival is a celebration of everything data, bringing together a varied group of stakeholders from journalists, activists, marketing specialists, to government officials, data analysts, developers, and designers to name a few. The festival focused in on six areas of data utilization: in journalism and truth, politics, science and artificial intelligence, fintech, visualization, and marketing. DataFest provided space to work, develop, collaborate, network and inspire anyone involved at any level with data.

The first day, hosted by Tbilisi State University, saw an abundance of speakers from a plethora of fields, it was a stacked schedule with 16 speeches over the day, each limited to only 20 minutes. It was exciting to watch as this hugely varied group of speakers all espoused their one-shared-love of data and leveraged their rousing words to rid the layman’s fear of data and numbers.

Speakers present ranged from assistant professors, investigative journalists, NGO and company founders, to teaching fellows and data scientists from organizations such as Bellingcat, OCCRP, Amazon Web Services, Google, Facebook, Zalando, Deutsche Welle and CERN, to name a few. Topics swung from ‘How AI is changing the way we look at data’ to ‘Exploring the structure of human smuggling networks’.

Speaker Jason Papakheli a data scientist at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) shared his experiences receiving, working with and releasing leaked documents and information, and the hugely rewarding process this can be. The OCCRP has been involved in many high-profile investigations, including working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on the infamous Panama Papers. More recently and closer to home, in a massive undertaking of investigative journalism uncovering $2.9 billion in corruption and illegal funds, the OCCRP produced the Azerbaijani Laundromat.

Empowerment through data and open data journalism was a theme throughout the speeches, Pinar Dag shared this mindset for good reason. Pinar is the founder of Data Journalism Turkey and Dağ Medya, news portals and projects to challenge the censorship and persecution of journalism in Turkey and to ensure that data stays open. Pinar shared her story and advice in ‘Opening up data in closed countries’. Despite threats of a government becoming increasingly repressive, and more likely in spite of these threats, continues to not only push for a free press but teaches young journalists in Turkey how to work with data and to tell compelling stories, ensuring a new generation of journos challenging governments every step of the way. Since 2013, Dağ Medya has organized more than 55 workshops and reached over 6,000 people from all over Turkey.

Christiaan Triebert acknowledged the work of Pinar and Dağ Medya in his talk, ‘Online open-source investigation: Skripals & Khashoggi cases’. Triebert is an investigative reporter for Bellingcat, a unique news portal that encourages anyone to take an investigative mind to open sources of data and journalism. Detailing cases such as the Skripals poisoning and Libyan executions, Triebert explains how Bellingcat, through tools and sources available to anyone, such as Google Maps, reverse image searching, and geo-locating, are able to garner information that has eschewed international intelligence agencies. Bellingcat is unique in that journalists share full guides to the techniques they used as well as case studies. The ingenuity of their techniques is well worth checking out, as highlighted in Dali, Warhol, Boshirov: Determining the Time of an Alleged Photograph from Skripal Suspect Chepiga.

The first day of the DataFest attracted over 500 attendees from around the world, the second day allowed people to sit down with speakers from the first day, to learn and engage with the techniques and tools they use in data. Titled Workshops, the second day created a much more intimate and interactive setting for participants, while the venue, MediaTheka, in Nadzaladevi or Veteran’s Park, suffered a few technical difficulties, the speakers-cum-teachers powered through and shared a myriad of valuable insights into their fields of expertise.

Datafest wraps up today, with Datathons, a chance for attendants to delve deeper and work hands-on with data and data tools. These marathon eight-hour sessions challenge participants to create their own data-driven stories, visualize once boring datasets into something beautiful and even learn the basics of machine learning.

Datafest wouldn’t have been possible without the massive organizational effort of Forset, a team of creatives specializing in data communications, and Data Science Tbilisi, a collective of data scientists, both are based right here in beautiful Tbilisi. The festival was also supported by Prague Civil Society Center, Eastern Partnership Civil Society, Zalando, Exactpro, and Bank of Georgia Fintech.

The BNG media team was lucky enough to attend DataFest and would like to express our most sincere thanks to anyone and everyone who made the event possible. It was an entertaining, intriguing, exciting, sometimes shocking and incredible learning experience. Even with Denis Batalov, a machine learning architect for Amazon Web Services, projecting a simple infographic asking “Do I need a blockchain?”, in his presentation, with a single line leading to “No”, garnering a substantial and sobering-laugh from the audience, it was amazing to see so many inspired and involved people in Tbilisi, striving toward greater data aptitude and all the benefits that come from it.