Open Data in Latin America, Asia and Africa
(this page is part of my 2011 report on “Open Data: Emerging trends, issues and best practices”. Please follow that link to reach the Introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to also check the notes for readers! of the initial report of the same project, “Open Data, Open Society”)
Several countries in Latin America are studying and making experiments with Open Data both at the government and at the grassroots level. The same is happening, on a much smaller scale, in a few parts of Asia and Africa. On average, the volume of these Open Data experiments and the level of local interest and awareness around them is still lower than what is happening in Europe and North America. In spite of this we suggest that it is important, for public officials and civic activists in Western Countries, to follow these developments closely. The reason is that they may turn into very useful test beds for all the strengths and limits of Open Data, especially those not encountered yet where the movement was born.
In fact, the original discourse and arguments around Open Data are heavily Western centric. The problem they want to solve is how to make democracy work better in countries where it already exists and which share a great amount of history and cultural/philosophical values.
Other countries face very different challenges, from the philosophical level to the practical one. A common issue in developing countries, for example, is that there is very little to open simply because much PSI (Public Sector Information) doesn’t exist in digital format yet. Therefore, the first thing to do is to create data, normally through outsorcing and crowdsourcing.
Other issues, that will be discussed in detail in other sections of the report because they are also present in Europe in different forms, are related to lack of equal opportunities for access to data and serious fears (sometimes, concrete, sometimes caused by confusion about what should be open and how) that data will be used against citizens. A commenter to Gurstein’s Open Data: Empowering the Empowered or Effective Data Use for Everyone? said:
_in Delhi and Mumbai, mobs and rioters managed to get information about particular identity groups through voter rolls: openness is, in certain situations, a precarious virtue. It is almost certain that Open Data would be used to rig election but here again openness is not the issue, they would find it anyway..._
So far, the main interest about Open Data in Asian countries seems limited, so to speak, to its effects on transparency in politics. At a two-weeks programming contest held at the end of 2010 in Thailand, for example, one of the most appreciated entries was a software scraper of the Thailand’s Member of House of Representative Website, that made it possible for everybody to create applications using those data.
Right now, one of the most active Asian countries in the Open Data arena is India, which also signed an Open Government partnership with the USA in November 2010. In January 2011 the Indian Congress Party announced plans for a new law to fight corruption among public servants and politicians. Anti-corruption websites (including ones in local dialects) like Indiaagainstcorruption.org, already existed, including one, Ipaidabribe.com, that collected more than 3,000 people reports of graft in its first four months.
As it happens in Asia, even Latin America is currently focused, at least outside Public Administration circles, on how to open public data to achieve actual transparency. This appears even from the way many projects are labeled, that is “Civic Information” instead of Open Data (which is an idea starting from data reuse) or Open Government.
The reason is that even where good Freedom of Information laws exist in Latin America, they still have too little practical effects. Mexico, for example, already has a digital system to manage Freedom of Information requests, but there are reports of complaints filed against municipal officials that either have no effect at all, or aren’t possible in the first place, because relevant information has not been updated in years, or omits key data like (in the case of budget reports) “descriptions of how the money was spent”.
Even with these difficulties, the Latin America Open Data/Civic Information landscape is active and definitely worthwhile following. The list of interesting Civic Information projects in Latin America include (from Sasaki’s Access to Information: Is Mexico a Model for the Rest of the World?:
Mexican Farm Subsidies - an online tool to analyze how the federal government allocates those subsidies
Compare Your School: compares aggregate test results from any school with the municipal, regional, and national averages
Rebellion of the Sick built for patients with chronic diseases whose expenses are not covered by the government subsidized health coverage.
Argentina: Public Spending in Bahía analyzes how public funds are used.
Colombia: Visible Congress monitors the actions of the Colombian congress
Paraguay: Who Do We Choose?: lists profiles of all candidates for many public posts.
In Brazil, the principle that “what is not confidential should be available on the Internet in the open data format” is already discussed and, in principle, accepted, by some departments of the Brazilian federal government. However, the preferred practice for now is (if there are no other obstacles) to only publish data that have been explicitly requested by some citizens.
A report presented in May 2011 at the First Global Conference on Transparency Research mentioned a couple of Open Data issues in Latin America that are worth noting, because they’re present even in Europe and North America, in spite of the different historical and social background:
“Better coordination is needed between right to information campaigners and open data activists.”
“If activist manage to target particular topics to add “value” to the discussion, demand for open data could eventually increase in the region.”
In Africa, mobile phones are much more available, and more essential than computer with Internet access, often bypassing the need for real desktop PCs with many applications. Therefore, from a purely technical point of view, transparency, accountability and efficiency in government are quickly becoming accessible to most African citizens through mobile networks rather than through the “traditional” Internet. However, there are still too few public departments and procedures that use digital documents and procedures on a scale large enough to generate meaningful volumes of digital data that could be then published online.
While we write, Kenya is laying the legal groundwork to support Open Data. Permanent Secretary for Information and Communications, Dr. Bitange Ndemo is reported as hving been championing for quite some time. In practice, big challenges remain for Open Data usage in Kenya. The easiest one to solve is to technical, that is find skilled people that can package the data in ways that the public can consume (even on mobile phones…). The real problem, however, is the fact that (summarizing from Thinking About Africa’s Open Data):
There is a lot of Kenya data but it isn't accessible. The entities that hold the most public and infrastructure data are always government institutions. Getting information from them can be very hard indeed. We don't know who to go to to get the data we need, and there is no mandate to support one group to centralize it.
Kenya's own OpenData.go.ke website has only ever seen a small handful of data sets, none of which are now (early April 2011) available anymore. Groups like the Ministry of Education might publish some information on schools, but they won't give anyone the location data.