The State of Open Data

Open Data Around the World

The chapters in this section look at open data in different regions of the world.

How far have open data ideas and practices spread around the world over the last decade? And to what extent has open data developed differently across different countries and regions? The first of these questions has been addressed at some length. International indices, such as the Open Data Barometer,1 the Open Data Index,2 and Open Data Inventory,3 have surveyed countries over a number of years, and the United Nations (UN) E-Government Survey has also included questions on open data.4 Together, these studies indicate that open data has rapidly gained traction in upwards of 70% of UN Member Countries. However, translating the presence of portals and policies into reliable supplies of data on key topics and supporting a cultural change around government data have proven to be much more challenging. Addressing the second question requires a more qualitative approach, and that is the challenge taken up by the chapters in this section.

A note on regional clusters

Drawing regional boundaries for a qualitative review is fraught with difficulty. There are a myriad of possible approaches to clustering states based on geographic, economic, cultural, political, and linguistic factors, each with its advantages and disadvantages. In the end, our selection was influenced by the World Bank, the distribution of development sector funding, existing linkages between national open data communities, and the structure of the Open Data for Development (OD4D) network from which many of our authors for this section are drawn. As a result, we have used seven regional categories: Sub-Saharan Africa; South, East, and Southeast Asia; Eastern Europe and Central Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; Middle East and North Africa; North America, Australia, and New Zealand; and the European Union. These cover the majority of countries in the world, although we note with some regret that we have not managed to capture the particular experience of all small island developing states and hope that future work can address this gap.

For each of the seven regions, the authors have also been free to identify subregional clusters of countries and explore both internal and cross-regional comparisons. This subregional approach is evident in the Latin America and Caribbean chapter and, to an extent, in work on Francophone and Anglophone activities in Sub-Saharan Africa and in distinctions drawn between the Western Balkan and Black Sea regions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Different directions

In order to provide a contextualised view, the chapters in this section look specifically at regional histories of open data, and at the particular opportunities and challenges work has faced in each region. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Chapter 31), a narrative of open data for transparency and anti-corruption has provided a strong basis for advancement, while in the Middle East and North Africa (Chapter 34), organisations have adopted a framing of “data driven innovation”, playing down the political dimensions of open data in favour of a focus on economic development. For Sub-Saharan Africa (Chapter 37), strengthening links between open data and the Sustainable Development Goals has provided renewed impetus for open data activities Overall, the picture emerging from these chapters reveals that the peak of public excitement about open data appears to have passed across all regions, yet, instead of presaging the terminal decline of open data, these chapters suggest that regions have found different routes to sustain open data activity, creating distinct approaches that respond to local networks, political priorities, funding availability, and cultural ideas.

Crucially, in this section, the chapters offer insight into the extent to which open data has become truly global. Global not in terms of the spread of a “cookie-cutter concept” of government open data portals, but rather in terms of how and where leadership and innovation on open data may originate. Although many of the earliest identifiable activities in support of open data started in North America and Western Europe, these chapters illustrate that today, some of the most interesting ideas and activities can be found in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, or Latin America. These chapters also point out where innovation is likely to emerge over the next decade. For North America, Australia, and New Zealand (Chapter 35), opportunities lie in the use of open data as an enabler of cross-government collaboration and in strengthening a culture of data analytics. For Europe (Chapter 32), although evidence to date reflects that open data has had more impact on improving efficiency than social impact, the authors argue that the focus for the future must be on recapturing the social impact dimension of open data. Chapter 33 (Latin America and the Caribbean) points to the need for greater private sector engagement, and the chapters on South, East, and Southeast Asia (Chapter 36) and Sub-Saharan Africa (Chapter 37) both recognise that progress in high-income countries needs to expand to less-developed nations.

Alongside critical questions about whether open data should be seen as an unalloyed good as explored in the introduction to this volume, the emergence of different regional perspectives on the future of open data can also reinforce the sense of a growing open data identity crisis. When open data networks and movements were forming, being all things to all people may have been an effective strategy. But as the pressure grows on open data to perform, a lack of clarity about goals and values can create risks. Ultimately, readers may find that whether they see these chapters as illustrating the growth of a global open data movement or indicative of a fracturing and fragmenting open data landscape will depend upon their own views on how the future of open data should look. Views on whether the success of open data efforts depends on the alignment of political and cultural norms, or whether it simply requires the adoption of particular technical practices, will substantially determine that assessment.

Common experience

In spite of the different contours of open data activity from region to region, a number of common features nevertheless emerge. First, external funding has played a critical role in shaping the development of open data in most regions. Second, civil society plays a crucial role in supporting open data use, but successful civil society engagement only comes with approaches that are tailored to the region. Third, work on data journalism is making steady progress, although the wider journalistic and academic communities remain largely untapped as networks for data use. Fourth, data literacy building lags behind work on data supply everywhere, which currently acts as a major brake on realising broad benefits from open data.

In taking a regional perspective, it is possible to identify a number of funders who do not appear when looking at the global funding of open data work (see Chapter 25: Donors and investors). In the Western Balkans for example (Chapter 31: Eastern Europe and Central Asia), a number of funders have responded to the presence of technically savvy CSOs by adding open data components into new and existing programmes of activity. In Europe, substantial financial support through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme has been instrumental in the creation of a private sector market around open data and in fostering cross-country collaborations, while a decline in core funding for civil society networking or open data capacity building has arguably led to a reduction in community activity and collaboration as groups compete for limited resources. The fear that funder interest will move on from open data is also a concern in a number of other chapters. In Asia, for example, the author notes that “New and innovative projects will not see the light of day without donor support” and that “pilot projects cannot be scaled without donor funding” (Chapter 36: South, East, and Southeast Asia, p. 545). Overall, there is little evidence, as of yet, that sustainable domestically funded financing models for realising the benefits of open data have been established at scale.

Although governments have a role to play in reshaping policies and data infrastructures to provide a reliable supply of open data, and the private sector may be a direct beneficiary of data provision, civil society appears throughout the following chapters as the real driver of open data activity and innovation. Yet, from region to region, the models of civil society engagement vary greatly. In the Middle East and North Africa (Chapter 34), and around the Black Sea (Chapter 31: Eastern Europe and Central Asia) it is universities that are hosting work on data use, acting as brokers between the state and citizens. In Sub-Saharan Africa and the Western Balkans, “startup” CSOs are accessing resources and developing new models of engagement based around open data, and, in Latin America, we see an interesting mix of new CSOs and established civil society groups blending a focus on open data into their existing agendas. Successful use of open data for social impact ultimately requires both technical know-how and domain expertise which takes time to establish.

When it comes to journalism, most regions have evolved a small number of journalistic organisations who have chosen to invest in building their data journalism capacity, often focusing on data visualisation as a means to communicate stories of interest. What is less clear, however, is how far journalists, as opposed to specialist data journalists, are drawing on open data sources in researching their stories. Similarly, while some academics have specialised in developing open data projects, we would expect that a much larger number would be using open data to support their research. Although universities appear as key actors in a number of chapters, the influence of open data on knowledge production across academic institutions is under-surveyed.

Different regions all started their work with open data with very different levels of technical capacity, as well as different levels of access to institutional delivery of education and training. However, across all regions, a continued lack of data literacy among both policy-makers and potential data users appears as a recurring challenge. In reflecting on the experiences of North America, Australia, and New Zealand (Chapter 35), the authors suggest “[o]ne potentially underappreciated aspect of the open data story is that beyond the supply and demand for transparent government information, open data may be laying a broader foundation in the region for a more robust role for analytics and performance management in government, (p. 530)”, pointing in particular to the way in which engagement with open data has encouraged government staff to develop their analytical skills. Given data literacy is not only key to engaging with open data debates, but is also critical for any organisations or individuals navigating an increasingly digital society, a key underappreciated argument for open data in future is that it promotes hands-on engagement with meaningful data. Instead of simply viewing a lack of data literacy as blocking progress on open data, open data initiatives themselves could play a pivotal role as tools of global data literacy building.

Shared futures

It is difficult to fully sum up ten years of open data in a single country, let alone a whole region. As such, the chapters that follow offer one set of perspectives on each region, acting as a starting point for further analysis. In the conclusion to this book, we will return to look at how the international exchange of ideas, new networks for collaboration, and the fragmentation of effort that results from a range of economic and cultural differences are likely to shape the future of global open data work.

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  4. 4: UNDESA. (2018). United Nations E-Government Survey 2018: Gearing e-government to support transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies. New York, NY: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

Continues in 31. Eastern Europe and Central Asia

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