Governments are opening up their data...
More data is not necessarily better data, but the upward trajectory most governments are moving is encouraging
Last month, tech-savvy activists logged on around the world to take part in various hackathons for Open Data Day. The aim was to encourage the world’s local, regional and national governments to share more of their data online. It’s an great idea, but there’s still a lack of meaningful analysis around how well governments are actually doing in opening up information to their citizens. Here’s a snapshot of what we know and what it means.
Open government data is growing and can be transformative
First, the good news: there’s a steady upward trend in governments opening up data to the public. Around a fifth of the world’s national governments have launched data portals collating information on everything from public spending to land ownership. The US led the way, setting up their portal in 2009 with the UK following a year later. Far from lagging behind, developing countries are also joining the trend. India launched an open data portal in August last year and the Philippines followed suit only last month.
There is also evidence that this opening up is having an effect. As part of its open data drive in Mauritius, the government published data, which mapped land ownership across the entire country. This has led to better scrutiny by civil society in the country and a decrease in land grabs. The project has been so successful that the World Bank is now looking to fund similar such mapping projects across much of Africa.
Developed country doesn’t always equal developed data
Hardly a day goes by without a story appearing in the media related to murky dealings in the developing world, but things aren’t that simple. Having a government data portal means nothing if the information is selective or irrelevant. If you want to investigate corruption and company ownership, you’ll have more open data to work with in the east-European state of Georgia than Georgia, USA.
Want to check how the government is spending taxpayers money? You’ll have more luck in Brazil than Belgium. Equally, while on paper some governments are performing well, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. In Dubai, where the government makes noises about being among the most progressive on data sharing, much of what is actually opened up to the public is peripheral to say the least. How many political risk analysts or human rights campaigners are going to be heartened by the publication of data on the number of fishing boats in the country; or the number of greenhouses currently harnessing the Dubai desert sun?
There’s lots to do but the future is bright
So the global map of government openness is patchy. While progress is being made, things are starting from a very low base. Many countries simply have no web platform, public or private, where data about government and public activity is consolidated. Some governments don’t even have a functioning website at all.
In sub-Saharan Africa, only 14% of countries have a searchable online company register. For a continent with growth rates consistently hitting between 5-8% annually, a lack of accessible data is undoubtedly holding back potential investors. Compare this to South America, from Colombia downwards, where over half the countries have accessible company registries.
We can end on a positive note. While parts of sub-Saharan Africa may still be lagging behind on open data, other countries are forging ahead: Rwanda, Liberia and Tanzania are all stand out cases. In Liberia, the government’s efforts to make the booming mining and oil industry transparent and compliant with the global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) has helped push more government information into the open and online.
On the other side of the world, the South Pacific island states are also making waves. Through a groundbreaking partnership with the New Zealand Aid Programme, AusAid and the Asian Development Bank, states in the region including Papua New Guinea, Samoa and East Timor have created what the World Bank has deemed as the most progressive corporate registries in the word. For a region rich in natural resources and with expanding economies, implementing such reforms will allow investors and transparency investigators alike to undertake much more informed research in the future.
More data is not necessarily better data but the trajectory governments are moving in, especially in often more dynamic emerging economies, has to be seen as encouraging. Whether you’re a risk specialist advising investors, an activist taking part in the recent Open Data Day, or simply a citizen keen to know what your government’s up to, things are looking up.
David Buxton is CEO of Arachnys – follow the company on Twitter @arachnysRead original article
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