Mon | Feb 24, 2020

CAPRI | Reaping the benefits of open government data

Published:Monday | October 29, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The solutions to many of the problems we face as a country - societal, economic, health, environmental - begin with data: having access to the information necessary to make decisions based on facts. Allowing greater citizen access to a wide array of data - open data, which is free for anyone to access, use, share and modify, for any purpose - has generated significant economic and social benefits in countries around the world. This has resulted in a global thrust towards data liberalisation, with several governments making open data a priority policy and action item.

Open data empower citizens, improve governance, create business opportunities, and helps to solve many of society's complex issues. There are several examples from around the world and across various sectors that illustrate the opportunities offered by open data.

In the UK, the release of data, such as bus and train arrival times, live traffic updates by London's transport authority, Transport for London (TfL), has generated £130 million in annual economic benefits. This data have spurred innovation and created business opportunities; to date, over 600 apps are powered by TfL's data. Over 200 jobs have been created as a result, and there have been significant time and money savings for travellers.

In the United States, residents in a predominantly African American neighbourhood in the city of Zainesville, Ohio, successfully used public water-billing, demographic, and geographical mapping data to produce a map which showed a pattern of racial discrimination in the distribution of water. This led to a successful lawsuit against the city, and resulted in an award of US$11 million for the residents.

Brazil's open budget portal publishes detailed information on government spending, including spending by government officials. Since its launch in 2004, it has been a major point of reference for citizens, and used by journalists to expose abuse of public funds. Data on the portal has led to the resignation of a government minister who charged US$30,000 of personal spending on his government credit card, and resulted in a 25 per cent reduction in credit card spending by officials.

In Kenya, a journalist used data on the government's open data portal to find the cause of record low grades in primary schools in two counties.

She examined county-level expenditure on education infrastructure (including data on the number of toilets per school), student grades, and disease levels among students. Through analysis, she was able to ascertain relationships between the various datasets to determine that reduced funding led to poor and reduced toilet facilities. This caused a cholera and hepatitis outbreak, which resulted in high absenteeism and poor performance on exams. Her findings led to a reallocation of funding by the education ministry to correct the toilet deficiency in underserved schools.

 

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A critical aspect of the use of open data in all of these cases is that it took more than the government opening the data for it to be used in these profound ways - public outreach, awareness raising, and training programmes complemented the release of data. Merely opening data is not usually sufficient as the data has little value if it cannot be used. For example, the journalist in Kenya who was able to use data from the government's portal to solve a major problem affecting students had participated in a data literacy training bootcamp, which had equipped her with the necessary skill set.

In Brazil, the number of unique visitors to its open budget portal was just 10,000 per month when it was launched in 2004. Through a massive public education campaign, this number quickly climbed and in 2016, stood at one million unique visitors. Public engagement, awareness raising, training, and collaboration with users, and with those who can facilitate the use of open data (intermediaries), are essential to unlocking value from open data.

Jamaica's open data programme is more advanced than most of its counterparts in the Caribbean, placing atop most regional rankings.

In recent years, there have been legislative developments (data protection legislation tabled; open data policy in development), infrastructural developments (a portal), as well as some capacity building through data training programmes. Despite recent developments, the country has experienced very limited impact from its open data programme thus far. Several issues relating to data quality, the reactive nature of data release within government, issues with the access to information - request process, and a lack of focus on answering specific questions with open data, are significant barriers to its use and impact in Jamaica. Many of these challenges stem from the absence of an open-data policy which provides guidance, and standardises data collection, distribution, and quality, across government agencies.

Of paramount importance is the need for widespread training programmes and a public engagement campaign to mobilise the use of open government data in Jamaica - two steps which CAPRI recommended in its latest study, undertaken in partnership with the National Integrity Action (NIA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), launched to the public last month. Following the publication of this report, CAPRI will  be engaging policymakers in order for the suggested key first steps to be actioned. CAPRI is committed to providing assistance where needed to ensure that, like a number of countries before it, Jamaica can fully reap the benefits of open government data for transparency, economic growth and societal transformation.