Open Data: should we care?

Excited by the connectivity revolution, governments all over the world are trying to find clever uses for the enormous amounts of digital information they now possess.

Excited by the connectivity revolution, governments all over the world are trying to find clever uses for the enormous amounts of digital information they now possess. One of the Big Data movements with the most momentum is Open Data – making this information available to the public. But what good does this actually do? Apolitical spoke to three pioneers in the field in Burkina Faso, Brazil and India, who told us about fighting corruption, ensuring free elections and preventing crime. These real, substantive issues go beyond the inevitably vague buzzwords of transparency and accountability. Here we discover what Open Data can really do about them.

Burkina Faso’s first free elections in 30 years

Malick Tapsoba ApoliticalOne of the stars of the Open Data movement, Malick Tapsoba helped Burkina Faso to its first fully democratic elections since independence. The problem he addressed was the incendiary wait between the polls closing and the announcement of results. During a recent election in Tanzania, for example, the public had to wait four days for results, inevitably stirring up suspicions of foul play. In Burkina Faso, the situation was particularly tense after a revolution had brought down the strongman Blaise Compaoré after nearly 30 years in power. The military also attempted a coup only weeks before the voting at the end of 2015. So Tapsoba’s team published all results live online for each province, starting within hours of the polls closing. Despite the numerous technical challenges, the election passed off peacefully – the first fully free and open vote since independence.

When did you first encounter Open Data?
I first heard about Open Data in 2013 [before the revolution]. When I discovered Open Data was talking about transparency, accountability, citizen participation, I said: yes, that’s what we need for our country. Because at that time, everything was kept secret. A few months after we launched our first Open Data portal, the revolution happened in Burkina. I can’t say the revolution happened because of the Open Data portal, but people were asking for more transparency, more democracy. So I think it was the right time.

How pleased were you with the way the election was conducted?
The Open Election was a very big success and very important because it was the first real democratic election since independence in 1960, and it happened after a revolution and at the end of a tumultuous transition marked by a failed military coup in September 2015. No one predicted the success of this open election until it happened. But the election was transparent, peaceful and accepted, we managed it, and since the election, no candidate has complained about the result. Everything went very well. It was unbelievable.

What was the main challenge in making it happen?
The most important part was to convince the politicians and the Electoral Commission. As you may know, the Commission are very independent and they don’t want someone to come and mix up with their jobs. But after six or seven months of negotiation and lobbying with the Commission, we finally met their president for a presentation of the project, where we showed him some prototypes and how it would help. Afterwards, he was very excited.

What advice would you give others wanting to create similar systems?
There were a lot of technical issues that needed to be fixed and tested. As you know, elections are very sensitive, especially in the context of revolution. So we needed to be very careful, because a small error could have created a big disaster. But we had a good team, about 20 persons. Some were in charge of monitoring the server, some the network, some the electricity, some the application. And some were testing the application locally. It was a real war machine that we put in place to parry any eventuality. So what I can advise is to start very early.

Citizens watch the state in Sao Paulo

Fernanda Campagnucci ApoliticalFernanda Campagnucci is Head of Integrity in Sao Paulo, the most populous city in the Americas and home to more than 11million people. A former journalist, she is part of the new Controller General’s office, which fights corruption in a country that ranks 76th in the world corruption index, on a level with Bosnia, Burkina Faso and Zambia. After beginning to do some data journalism and working in advocacy, she was offered a job in the government. She took it because ‘I wanted to know how this big machine works – and suddenly I loved it.’ She spoke to Apolitical about how Open Data both increases trust in what government is already doing, and how it makes things better.

What’s the most interesting example of how you’re using Open Data?
There are two very important projects: One of them was about the property register; with the name of the proprietor, the area, the design of the block. It’s public information, but you had to pay very high fees for it, so it wasn’t really publicly available. And people thought it was secrecy on the part of the government.

Who wants access to this information?
We have the business sector, which wants to buy land, or a neighbour who wants to know if the house next door is in a regular situation, or social watchdogs or journalists want to know if some politician has ‘forgotten’ to declare his properties.

Those are quite specific examples. How else is this kind of data useful?
For example, councillors were voting for a project to permit construction in an environmentally protected area, and people were fighting against that bill, but they didn’t have the information. The councillors’ main argument was that we need more areas to build in because Sao Paulo is lacking them, so some hackers took the data sets and showed where there was lots of land available in different parts of the city.

You mentioned a second Open Data project.
Yes, it was with traffic fines, speed cameras. People wanted to know how many fines were being made and it started to be a public debate because people thought it wasn’t fair. On top of that, mainly journalists, but also the cyclists’ movement, who are pressuring for cycle lanes, wanted some data about traffic and accidents. So we opened it up and did some visualisations as well, so you can see the patterns of accidents.

And what came out of the data?
Only 5% of the drivers were getting fined, and in public it felt like everybody was getting fined or knew someone who was getting fined. Even if people don’t like the information you give them, it creates trust, because they can see you want to have a discussion. And it turned out the way not to get fined is very simple – don’t speed. You see, the mayor had reduced the speed in order to reduce accidents. In Brazil there’s a very conservative, car-centric culture, and people weren’t accepting his policies for cycle lanes, so we are supporting his movement for change with some data.

What’s the value of close discussion with citizens?
In the Controller General’s office, we want people closer so they will help us to watch the government because we know that corruption is still a huge problem. It’s something we have very precise measures to combat, but we don’t have enough human resources, so we have to count on people to do that as well.

More generally, we’re trained to say that you have to consider citizens first of all, but I really believe we don’t just have to consider them but to bring them inside to help build policies. It’s not only propaganda, it’s not only discourse, it makes policies better. After we do a consultation, we can see very clearly where we missed something. So it really gets richer through the involvement of the people. I know that sometimes people use this as propaganda, but I think open government can make processes and policies much better, more efficient, more precise, more objective. It’s not only a question of democracy, it’s a question of efficiency.

India’s cities fixed by residents’ demands

Alka Mishra ApoliticalAlka Mishra runs what has the potential to become one of the largest data projects in the world – that of the Indian government. Its citizen engagement aspect, mygov.in, signed up more than 100,000 users in the first fortnight after launch. It allows citizens to make suggestions to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to which he responds in radio addresses. It also sets competition-style tasks for any citizens who want to attempt them, such as designing logos, slogans and layouts for government ministries and websites, and has been used to guide the country’s $15billion Smart Cities urban improvement programme. The other aspect, data.gov.in, is opening up vast quantities of government information to app developers, NGOs and journalists who can find uses for it.

You’re running a project to put as much government data as possible online. What are the best examples?
We have a lot of good data sets in agriculture, so we’ve got around 2,500 markets in India, selling commodities like rice, wheat, fruits and things like that. Each market has a rate – the current price for that day – and that is now reported on data.gov.in. So we have got a very good application developed by a community member. He has made a mobile application that is able to give the price of a commodity within five kilometres. So that is really useful.

You also created the government’s largest crowd-sourcing platform, mygov.in. Why was that done?
This was a directive directly from the Prime Minister. He felt there should be a government platform where people could engage, give him suggestions, actively participate in formulating plans. And it is really picking up very well, much more than what we anticipated two years back. We thought people would not engage so much, but people are engaging and giving a lot of meaningful suggestions. In government, we tend to have our fixed path, we’ve got our tools, our response duties, but government was not able to tap the talent of artists, developers, researchers – and now a lot of good, valuable crowdsourcing has been formulated.

What else does mygov.in do?
When they chose 100 cities to be Smart Cities, the entire contest of which cities would be chosen, from about 200, came through mygov. [For example, Delhi is not presently among them.] And after the choice of the cities, there was a set of prefixed questions: do you think electricity is more important? Do you think this is more important? One city might feel that it really lacks healthcare while another might feel that the hospitals are there, but transport is the crux. So the focus becomes tailor-made depending on the opinion of the people for that city.

What’s been the biggest sticking point?
We have got limited resources. So we definitely cannot reach out to all the masses. We can only do technology and enable. The challenge is getting the right sort of people to get involved, whether NGOs or communities or small start-ups. The challenge was to engage with these people and see that we sustain this effort. We have allowed people to come and participate and take it up as proof of concept, and give them small stipends or things like that so they can spread the word.

We feel we need to do lots more with regard to getting value. Because there are only three or four good apps that we can quote, but we would have liked one or two in each sector.

How much do you think data is changing policy?
I don’t think it’s yet changed policy as such, because we’re only two years old, but definitely it has opened the eyes. Data journalism has come up, especially around crime data, because they are able to tell you if, say, the suicide rate or rapes have gone up in this city. People are aware that this is a safe place or this is not a safe place. And new initiatives have happened as a result of the story. The data has come so the story has come, and once the story has come people have felt there is a need to reform.

 

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