Open data has major impact at the local level – new research

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Michael Cañares, Open Data Lab Jakarta’s Regional Research Manager for Asia, writes on why his latest research as part of our Open Data in Developing Countries Phase 2 underlines the need for greater involvement of local governments in open data initiatives.

When I started researching open data, there was a lot of buzz around building open data portals, running hackathons, conducting data dives for data journalists and holding events to launch open data initiatives across the developing world. In most countries, initiatives were championed by national governments and launched in major cities, involving national data sets related to finance, education, health, and transport, among others.

What was missing from those conversations was a frank discussion about how these initiatives were going to achieve impact for the greatest number of people, given that in many developing countries the majority of the population were living in rural areas, far from the capital cities where these initiatives were focussed. In India, for example, the National Data Sharing Accessibility Policy requires agencies in central governments to publish data in reusable formats. However, there is no similar policy directing sub-national governments to do the same.

In many developing countries, day-to-day life is more greatly impacted by local programmes and regulation. In these areas, governance structures are decentralized but not necessarily adequately funded, internet penetration is low, and a fifth of the voting population struggle to attain full literacy, let alone data literacy.  An example of this is Kenya, where government has heavily invested in an online open data portal, but 77% of the rural population prefer the radio as a means of getting government information, largely due to the technological barriers to Internet access.

There was, and still is, the presumption that once a data portal is launched and some data sets are published, open data would naturally bring about change of its own accord. Following the launch of an open data initiative, transparency would be enhanced, public service efficiency would improve, and people would start holding the government to account and using the data to revolutionise the way public goods and services are delivered.

This has not happened. The initiatives have focused on too few individuals in government in the capital cities. There has not been sustained leadership and investment to put the open data tools to work. It has become clear that setting up open data infrastructure in the capital isn’t going to be enough.

In our first phase of Open Data in Developing Countries research, we established that for open data to generate impact in the development context, it needs to overcome significant hurdles including: weak legal and policy frameworks, poor data quality, poor connectivity and lack of technical skills.

We wanted to investigate these hurdles and the solutions for overcoming them further in our ODDC Phase 2 research, with a particular focus on how the lessons learned could be applied at the local government level, to achieve maximum impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens.

In our study Open Data and Sub-national Governments: Lessons from Developing Countries, my co-author Satyarupa Shekhar and I review nine cases from six countries across the developing world. We found that for open data to really make a difference in people’s lives, we need to expand it to the local level.  Particularly in decentralised countries, the local level is where data is collected and stored. This means that by engaging local governments in open data initiatives, it becomes more feasible that data will be published, and when used, generate the more impact on the everyday lives of a greater number of citizens.

For example, government spending data in the Philippines, is more granular at the local level, and the local leaders who allocate and spend government funds are closer to the citizens to whom they should be accountable.  In Bohol province, disclosure of budget information on disaster risk reduction and management enabled the civil society organisations to ask government why funds were not spent despite the occurrence of a 7.2 magnitude earthquake. These organisations are now crafting proposals to use the budget for disaster-preparedness activities going forward.

Another example is the open data on public toilets in Chennai, India. For the people who live there, it is not just numbers, but an everyday reality that affects their living conditions. Transparent Chennai’s engagement with the government in collecting, validating, and curating public toilet data improved infrastructure investments of the city government in the area of public sanitation. It also influenced how government monitors the condition of other public infrastructure such as bus shelters, footpaths, roads and playgrounds.

To achieve these results, local governments need to overcome the same hurdles as those mentioned above for open data initiatives generally: weak legal and policy frameworks, poor data quality, poor connectivity and lack of technical skills.

However, what’s interesting is how these local actors often respond to these challenges differently.  For example, in Argentina, the Buenos Aires government passed a Freedom of Information (FOI) Law to provide the legal framework for citizens to use and question open data, since a similar law does not exist at the the national level.

The city government of Rio de Janeiro engaged a private sector company to help them build a center of operations where different agencies collect, aggregate, and analyse geo-referenced information on different data – from rivers to public transportation.

In Chennai, a civil society organisation helped the city government to provide quality data and use this as basis for decision making in public infrastructure investments.

In all of these case understanding the context, quality of data and the capacity of both providers and users of information was necessary for the open data initiatives to become really relevant to the lives of people and their communities.

We hope our research will further advance the efforts of open data communities to explore implementation at the local level. You can download and read the full research including all nine case studies here.

Note: This project is part of the ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries’ (ODDC) research funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (through grant 107075). The Web Foundation is a partner of the Open Data for Development network.

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