Corruption’s Antidote: World Leaders Pushing Open Data

June 18, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service

“Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability.” That’s straight from the UN summary of the March 2015 “Data Revolution in Africa” conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The UN statement makes a strong start, but the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF) asks: What’s the plan? As people around the world wonder where international aid disappears to and who’s controlling the water, WWWF zeros in on five key findings necessary to deliver on the promise of global open data, in its Open Barometer 2015 report (ODB). The first finding, calling for “high-level political commitment to proactive disclosure of public sector data” points to the need for action from leaders of the G7, G20, and other nations.

Africa: Plans & Progress

The presence and strength of an open data initiative (ODI) in a country can tell citizens a lot about how tangibly its leaders back open data. The ODB rates nations’ ODIs from zero to 10, based on the question, “To what extent is there a well-resourced open government data initiative in this country?”

The ODI rankings of the African countries surveyed for the ODB are generally quite low: none exceed five, and many nations score a one or even zero. Nigeria, with its established ODI and trailblazing work — including the Follow the Money Initiative, health hackathon, and the Edo State portal — rated just a three. 

What’s behind these low rankings? Leadership and infrastructure together sustain a country’s ODI. A developing nation’s leaders may champion open data as much as, or even more than, leaders in developed nations, but lack the crucial network of implementation-friendly assets — from nationwide Internet access to trained data workers to sheer basics, such as reliable food supplies.

The need for tools, systems, and empowerment to carry out ODIs was front-and-center at the March 2015 Data Revolution in Africa conference. A big result: The adoption of the African Data Consensus, a product of collaboration by the African data champions and open government pioneers who attended the conference. Along with identifying practical next steps for expanded infrastructure, the conference saw a renewed dedication to open data. As the WWWF’s Savita Bailur notes, “A big win for the open data community is that the final adopted Data Consensus clearly states that official data should be open by default.”

Action in Ottawa: Addressing Open Data Obstacles

Then in May 2015, Canada hosted the International Open Data Conference (IODC2015). In the ODB 2015, WWWF points to the need for the IODC2015 to result in “concrete actions to address the political and resource barriers that threaten to stall open data efforts.” Political obstacles vary widely, and include the need for right to information legislation and timely publication of datasets.

The IODC2015 attendees responded to WWWF’s call by developing eight action areas as part of the overall IODC2015 roadmap. The actions range from “Strengthening a global network of open leaders in government,” to “Capacity building for all.”

Canada’s own results show the power of top-down championing of open data. In the 2013 ODB, Canada’s rankings on readiness were already high: 88 percent for government, and 84 percent for citizens and civil society. While those scores increased only marginally in the ODB 2015, Canada’s early commitment to open data — combined with its solid infrastructure and sustainable policies — paid big dividends: Entrepreneurial and business readiness jumped from 60 percent in 2013 to 88 percent in ODB 2015, and social impact leaped from a score of 21 percent to 60 percent.

The G7 Talks Transparency

ODB 2015 also calls out the June 2015 G7 summit as a crucial moment for leaders to demonstrate a commitment to act on open data promises. Previously, as the Sunlight Foundation observes, “G7 leaders agreed to follow five open data principles and publish their own national action plans detailing how they intended to implement the charter.” The G7 countries adopted the goals “in order to spur innovation and increase government transparency,” explains WWWF in ODB 2015. “But beyond the top-ranked UK and US, G7 nations largely failed to improve their abysmal 2013 scores on the high value datasets they themselves pledged to release.”

ODB 2015 states, “some G7 countries still need to invest more in capacity-building and support for data users,” pointing to Germany, host of the June 2015 summit, as having “fallen in the rankings, as other countries have moved ahead.” In addition to slipping in the ODB 2015 from ninth to 10th spot, Germany — a nation brimming with Internet access, entrepreneurial zeal, and civic tech expertise — released its national open data action plan a year after the agreed-upon G7 deadline. “Data and openness still seem to be low priorities for the Merkel administration,” remark Júlia Keserű and Christian Heise in the Sunlight Foundation.

Citizens to Leaders: With or Without You

Backing from high-ranking officials hugely benefit the success of ODIs. But the world isn’t waiting on the G7 leaders to deliver open data. Openness and transparency initiatives keep growing in developing nations, small municipalities, and via regional efforts. While leaders’ reaction times to the recommendations in ODB 2015 vary, the economic wins and societal impacts of open data create an undeniable movement that is transforming government globally — in some places from the top-down, in others from the ground-up.

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