Trip report: Open Data in Skopje

Trip report: Open Data in Skopje /img/skopje.jpg

A couple of weeks ago I was invited at the first National Open Government Partnership Forum in Skopje, Macedonia, for the panel titled “OGP-related Initiatives at the Local Level - Comparative Perspectives”. Here’s a short trip report, complete of link to my slides.

The Forum included a good summary of the OGP/Open Data landscape, from which I’d like to quote, in no particular order (*) some remarks and statements I’ve found more interesting for me and (as far as I can tell, of course!) for the rest of the audience:

  • John Culley, UK Foreign Service: Government releasing data means it counts on civil society, business sector, to make best use of them… but also the social, educational benefits are great. [and don't forget that] releasing data is a neverending journey
  • Marija Risteska, CRPM Executive Director: In Macedonia most OGP initiatives will be/are at the local level
  • Eleanor Stewart, Head of Transparency Office, FCO: UK is currently evaluating:
  • applicability and definition criteria for charging for data
  • consolidation of reuse and copyright guidelines
  • how to engage more with data users, and know from civil society if/when/HOW MUCH data are actually reusable
  • Giorgi Kldiashvili, Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, Georgia, after noting the similarities in the recent history of the two countries, presented some achievements of the OG/Open Data movement in Georgia, including, but not limited to, an efficient search engine for fighting corruption, an electronic procurement system, an e-petition website and a public awareness campaign
  • Adrian Besimi, South East European University: low interest of citizens in using open data, and low self -esteem of their skills on this. Must continuously explain that it is not necessary to be expert in everything
  • Kostadin Mishev, Head Program Officer of Regional Centre for Social Innovation presented several useful Open Data-based mobile apps and Web services, from PRUMK for job listings to the Crime Map (why Google Maps and not OpenStreetMap, if I may ask?)
  • Microsoft representative (sorry, I forgot to write down her name..): right now, for the Macedonian Government, data on funding and needs of SMEs and such are probably more important/ urgent/relevant than apps to find the best route in town and similar services (more below)

My own contribution

Initially, I had prepared a talk with some general suggestions to make OGP-related initiatives at local level successful, that is long lasting, self sustainable and useful to a many people as possible. At the last moment, I decided instead to present only one, specific but reusable example from Italy of Open Data in schools, A Scuola di OpenCoesione (ASOC). The slides of my talk, together with the links to a proposal of mine on the same general theme, are already on my website. Here, I’ll just add what I answered to this question from the audience about Monithon, ASOC’s parent project: “How do they ensure the quality and coherence of data in Monithon?" My own answer (which the Monithon team is welcome to improve and correct, of course!) is that this is not an issue, since:

  • the actual raw data come straight from the EU through the OpenCoesione portal and are not modifiable by the end users of Monithon and/or ASOC
  • the non structured contributions from those users (pictures, field reports and such) are both separated by those data, and monitored by the webmasters anyway

On public petitions and consultations

Filip Stojanovski, Metamorphosis Foundation and Mrs Irena Bojadzieska, National OGP Coordinator, raised the issue of how to organize and handle these forms of online interactions with citizens. I heard that, in Macedonia, the government “reacted much more quickly to Facebook pages that got thousands of likes in one hour, than to petition sites that may get fake/repeated submissions”, also because " the only way to make petitions reliable was with digital signatures, that were too expensive/complicated to set up”. At the same time, if I understood it correctly, “online consultations are crucial, but local laws leave no practical/physical time to organize city-level referendums”.

Paul Maassen added that, in general, it’s extremely difficult to get a public consultation right for your way to do government, your specific country and needs, context. Often it is hard to even formulate questions so that they still make sense in a form that accepts a Y/N or like/ignore Facebook-style answer; “so choose very few things, making much harder for the government to say no”.

Other food for thought

The remark from the Microsoft representative is obviously biased, reflecting (but why it shouldn’t? I have no problems with that, this is an observation, not a critique) the interests of a corporation that gets much of its profits from sales to (large, central) Public Administrations: but is a very interesting and relevant remark, in my opinion. I’d disagree if she meant that those data are more relevant than useful apps only for the Government, not also for citizens. At the same time I think (and Mr Besimi’s statement confirmed to me that this is the case also in Macedonia) that easy and fancy apps are the most practicable, if not the only way to introduce Open Data and Open Government to most voters of today, in many countries. What do you think?

In addition to that, what would be your answer to these comments and question from the audience?

  • So far, I have heard very little about innovation in/through Open Data
  • Machine reusability is all well and good, sure. But so is timeliness, and even more permanence (interestingly, another participant immediately pointed out that “there are laws that forbid to keep online outdated stuff”. A complicate issue, indeed)
  • If the problem is engagement of ordinary citizens… why there are no commercials to sell Open Government?

Tongue in cheek moment

Trip report: Open Data in Skopje /img/one-problem-of-open-data-proprietary-formats.jpg

“Opened Data are published to application specific, non-reusable format". Indeed, and not news. But being the first bullet in a slide titled “Barriers to reuse” by the representative of the supplier of a proprietary office suite, this statement wins the “Forum Most remarkable declaration” hands down.

(*) This post comes from the quick, very synthetic notes I took during the meeting, but only had time to reformat today. All emphasis and interpolation are mine. So are all attribution or transcription error, obviously.