Liz Carolan, the international development manager at host organisation the Open Data Institute (ODI), said countries should instead start with real-world problems and then work out how data can be part of the solution.
“A government might say: ‘We put the data on the web, that’s enough’ — but it’s not,” she said. “You could not get away with that”, especially in countries where internet connectivity and literacy are low and it is difficult for people to access the data in the first place.
“Do not be blinded by the bright and shiny milestone of developing and launching an open data portal.”
Ivy Ong, Open Data Philippines
Ivy Ong, outreach lead at government data provider Open Data Philippines, added: “Do not be blinded by the bright and shiny milestone of developing and launching an open data portal.”
Ong was one of seven members of the ODI’s Open Data Leaders’ Network who discussed the challenges of implementing an open data culture and strategy in their respective countries at the meeting last week (27 July) in London, United Kingdom. The event also included senior civil servants from Argentina, Ecuador, New Zealand, Nigeria, Romania and Tanzania.
The meeting heard how conventional models of data sharing let government agencies and others who own information identify what they think is most useful. In contrast, starting with real-life problems “can change the way [governments] interact with people outside to prioritise the data they’re going to release”, Carolan said.
But moving from sometimes secretive government practices to transparent data sharing is a cultural challenge rather than a technical one, the meeting heard. This transition requires government leaders to commit to providing better services and engaging citizens, said Ong.
In the Philippines for example, ten days after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck in November 2013, the public could access the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub, a government website detailing pledges or donations. This changed the public conversation after the disaster, Ong said.
“A few days after Yolanda, there was strong citizen demand for transparency” to know where foreign aid was going, she explained, as many people, including journalists, assumed the money was not being used for its intended purpose.
After the government shared the data, it became clear that the majority of the donations were funnelled through multilateral organisations or local government units, rather than through central government bodies, Ong said. “The conversation became: so how do we hold these organisations accountable?” Some data uses might also be unexpected. One example given at the meeting was the Democratic Republic of Congo, where scientists used data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project to help protect wild animals.
“During an outbreak of violence, people can often turn to hunting wild animals as a replacement source of income and nutrition,” Carolan said. The data allowed researchers to identify areas likely to experience a spike in poaching.