Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation harnesses open data to tackle corruption

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The outcome of the 22nd APEC meeting serves as a ringing endorsement of open data as an effective governance tool and institutional ethos

On the back of the 16th International Anti-Corruption Commission Conference in Malaysia between 2-4 September, the 22nd Meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), held on 10-11 September in the Philippines, was another win for proponents of fiscal transparency in the region.

The resulting Cebu Action Plan encouraged members to develop open data portals that include government budgets, government revenue streams, and government borrowing and lending data, to make the data open to citizens. It also asks members not yet part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to consider the benefits of joining.

This can be considered as testament to the rapid expansion of open data as a global movement. The action plan recognises that improving the transparency and availability of government data can encourage economic growth, rather than impede it.

As the accompanying report notes, “the application of open data in both public and private sectors, coupled with innovation and technology, has been proven to unlock massive commercial and economic value.”

The action plan not only advocates open data on such practical grounds (that it unlocks economic value or optimises bureaucratic efficiency), but also by emphasising the importance of culture change. In a similar vein, it also calls for APEC members to develop “a vibrant ecosystem whereby governments, the private sector, civil society and individuals share and use open data.” It is clear that a concerted effort is being made to encourage governments to supply citizens with open data.

A number of member states have included outreach activities in their open data initiatives to promote awareness among businesses and civil society organisations. The report also highlights the importance of peer-learning and support for open data practitioners.

Challenges do remain for open data initiatives: technical ones, such as low internet connectivity, and cultural ones, such as a lack of high-level political support. The report notes the “numerous dimensions involved in discussing the value, opportunities, and risks of data, especially risks of data,” and for this reason identifies opening up data as a “low-hanging fruit.”

It is true that opening up data is an indispensable first step towards fiscal transparency, but establishing openness as the norm for governance will involve more than just an adoption of technology and the release of data, it requires a change in the culture of government institutions.

“From the ODI’s work supporting open data leaders in governments around the world, we have found that the biggest challenges tend to be cultural rather than technical,” ODI International Development Researcher Fiona Smith says. “Open data requires a shift in the way government institutions work internally – from being ‘guardians’ of the data they produce, to becoming advocates of open by default. In this way, open data can be seen as a silo buster within government, as well as a tool for promoting transparency.”

How far APEC members will bridge the gulf between words and substantial reform remains to be seen, however there are three important recognitions within the Cebu Action Plan that show the extent to which open data has become a global movement: that it is a necessity to governance, that it is conducive to economic growth, and that significant culture change is required for transparency to become a norm for governance.

Brendan Harvey is a Services Programme Intern at the ODI.

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