In a recent blog post on the Guardian, renowned independent Yemeni journalist Walid Al-Saqaf argues for why Yemen should make a push for open government data. Here at Global Integrity, we've had the pleasure of working with Walid off and on for several years; he's been one of the few independent, professional journalists willing to report on issues of government corruption and transparency, often at great personal and professional risk. He is great.
Here's Walid's basic argument:
Although there is no silver bullet, one important and vital measure towards [achieving open government] is to have the government open data up for public scrutiny. There appears to be a strong commitment to transparency from the new regime. But this commitment must be translated into allowing the public to access information on former and current projects, tenders, international agreements, loans and grants and many other areas. The government should start this open data initiative by inviting civil society, the international community and the media to access and widely publicise available data.
I believe that launching a digital open data initiative is the right step, which is needed to jump start this transformation to an open government. The internet could be used to grant the public access at a relatively modest cost.
Indeed, the web has proven to be useful not only for open data access, but for interaction and public engagement. Along with putting this data online, there will be need for longterm projects to enhancing telecommunication infrastructure and services to improve Internet access throughout the country.
Unfortunately, I think Walid is wrong on this. Here's why.
First, as Walid mentions in passing, internet access in Yemen is extremely poor, to say the least. We know this from first-hand experience in trying to remotely manage teams operating from the capital Sanaa. The sole Internet Service Provider (YemenNet) has historically been a government-run monopoly rife with filtering and censorship. Our Indaba fieldwork platform, for example, was routinely blocked under the Saleh regime as "pornography" (not kidding!). When Yemenis can actually get to the internet, the connection is flaky, slow, and frustrating. The idea that large numbers of Yemenis would flock to data.gov.ye on a regular basis is folly.
Second, unless I am mistaken (and I'd love to be wrong here; please correct me if I am), Yemen has little to no indigenous "civic hacker" culture and/or internet-focused community. This is not Kenya or the Czech Republic or Argentina. When's the last time you bought an app designed by a Yemeni coder or heard of a Yemeni hackathon? So a push for open data in Yemen likely tees things up for a vast oversupply of data met by little to no demand. We need key infomediaries, including programmers and a robust independent media, in order for open data to work its magic. I'm just not sure it's there in Yemen.
Third, open data initiatives bring with them opportunity costs. Yemen can't afford and won't have the local talent to build a quality open data portal/platform on its own, so foreign donors would be asked to pick up the tab. If donors commit to open data, what else will they be distracted from? Overhauling the country's telecom infrastructure? Building next-generation 4G mobile service? Capacity building of the nearly non-existent independent media sector? Prioritizing open data at the expense of other, potentially more pressing, reform efforts is a non-trivial decision.
Fourth, it's safe to say that the arguably most important piece of government data in Yemen — how much American intelligence services are funding the Yemeni military and security agencies — will never appear on data.gov.ye. So at a minimum, there's a need to set expectations appropriately given the geopolitical context in Yemen at the moment. An open data portal in Yemen may not be transformative when it comes to promoting democratic accountability in the country.
Could open data efforts make a contribution in Yemen? Maybe. Are they incredibly tricky and laden with difficult trade-offs in a post-conflict, low-income context? Definitely. A sober cost-benefits approach to evaluating the appropriateness of open data in Yemen seems the right way to answer those questions.
(I'm reaching out to Walid for his thoughts on this post and will happily share when I have them.)
— photo: screenshot of Indaba being blocked in Yemen (2011)
As always, it’s good to read you directly engaging with difficult issues and decisions with candor.
On points 2-4, I’ll readily admit to having limited knowledge of Yemeni civil society or technical infrastructure, which means I can’t comment meaningfully on your points.
With respect to the first point, however, I might suggest thinking about this differently.
“Portals” are indeed meant to be visited by many people — if you remember the late 1990s, they were all the rage. Yahoo.com persists as a portal today.
Platforms provide the means for developers to build on top of them — and governments acting as platforms expose Web services (through APIs) and data in machine-readable, downloadable forms.
The *outputs* from open data release (regardless of the semantic & strategic differences above) do indeed depend on infomediaries, from individual civic hackers, media organizations, all the way up to universities, foundations, private companies and government agencies, where such capacity exists.
The expectations of success from media, government, citizens and aid funders, however, might be better set to the A) downstream outcomes of targeted data release and B) actual usage of that data, as opposed to measuring how many citizens visit a “portal” online or how many data sets are on it.
The latter metrics are much more easily assessed and publicly touted (or cited as criticism) but they’re poor metrics for impact.
The world is full of “post-conflict, low-income contexts” where exposing government, aid and development data regarding budgets, expenditures, grants, loans has huge potential to shift societies from information scarcity to information abundance. Along with posting information about trade agreements and treaties, publishing such data online strikes me as a meaningful steps that incoming administrations could take, although such data will need to be made:
1) understandable to media and citizens through the combined efforts of development and donors (potential examples could be found in Apps for Africa, Apps for Climate Change, Apps for Development) and
2) made accessible through mobile devices (SMS, mobile websites and apps).
In that context, past experience suggests that simply setting up an “open data portal” and expecting people in developing countries with low Internet penetration and ICT capacity to find it and use it is a strategy design to fail. Instead, stand up a platform and engage civil society, the global development community and civic coders *everywhere* to ask for high-value data, to help digitize it, let them know where to get the data, encourage them to clean it and then make it find the people where and when they’re looking for it.
That’s not an insignificant effort to undertake — consider how the U.S. and U.K. have performed for comparison. Caution — and frank discussion of capacity, intentions and commitments to uncensored Internet access, legislative transparency, and open government in institutions, laws and and an independent judiciary — deserve to be discussed in parallel. Kudos for initiating the public conversation.
I’m really curious to see what Walid Al-Saqaf says. Meeting him was one of the high points of the Open Government Partnership conference for me.
Thanks Nathaniel for this thought-provoking blog post, which to me shows how much you really care about Yemen.
One benefit from working as a scholar (at Orebro University in Sweden), particularly in social sciences, is to understand that one cannot claim to be right nor to accuse other counter opinions of being wrong because everything is relative.
I’ll be happy to engage with you and respond to your points based on my personal experience living in Yemen and dealing with the government and others concerned about the future of my country.
But first of all, let me explain why I wrote the OP-ED.
A UN e-government survey in 2012 that found that many -mostly developed- countries applied e-government initiatives to reduce service deficiencies and support sustainable development in the public sector. In the survey, Sha Zukang, head of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, noted that “e-government can be an engine of development for the people.”
I believe that such initiatives could be a great method to reduce corruption and enhance accountability in developing countries. As a citizen of Yemen, I am dismayed by the lack of fiscal and administrative accountability, which hinders my country’s development. For example, a cement factory went bankrupt earlier this year and was closed down due to corruption . The fact that Yemen ranked 169 among 182 countries in Transparency International’s 2011 report confirms my concern.
Introducing e-government services built around the Internet could expose developmental projects to public scrutiny through online open web portals where statistics and relevant information would be accessible. Openness and transparency improves accountability and when officials are held accountable, developmental projects would succeed and improve the living standards of citizens.
Coming to your elegantly stated four points, here are my comments.
“When Yemenis can actually get to the internet, the connection is flaky, slow, and frustrating. The idea that large numbers of Yemenis would flock to data.gov.ye on a regular basis is folly.”
In Yemen, we have a vibrant and growing media and civil society that should be trained and encouraged to use this public information to discover any flaws and weaknesses in the system and thereafter report them to the public through various means. We don’t have to wait until Internet penetration spikes up. After all, the incompetence and corruption in the state is probably why we have a weak infrastructure and poor educational standards that caused this low Internet penetration.
We can’t keep on waiting until more people get access to the Internet before we demand transparency from the government to hold it accountable for the corruption, wasteful spending and poor performance which have been holding Yemen back for decades.
I think you’ll agree with me that we need to break this vicious circle. You may not agree with me on whether the Internet should be the means to do it. But I can’t see a more efficient and effective way to enhance transparency and allow the public to know how their tax money and the country’s wealth are being spent.
As for the blocking of getindaba.org, I think that should encourage you to call for transparency to know why it was banned and let the authorities reveal their online gate-keeping policies (I would benefit from that as my website yemenportal.net was blocked too).
“We need key infomediaries, including programmers and a robust independent media, in order for open data to work its magic. I’m just not sure it’s there in Yemen.”
Trust me, Yemen has a lot of talent and potential. Furthermore, the platforms that could be used to publish this government data may have the capabilities of producing human readable formats such as graphs, pie-charts and tables. I believe that any journalist with some basic training could investigate a discrepancy in data and reveal information that could be useful for a story on corruption or mismanagement. I think we should open more doors and give Yemenis a chance to explore rather than discouraging them for not having hacking skills.
In fact, we could use the open government initiative as an incentive to develop human resources because another positive byproduct of e-government implementation is long-term human resource development. Given the fast-paced global technological advancements, delivering basic services will increasingly be dependent on ICTs in an e-government setting. This requires qualified employees to manage them in a proper way. A country could import the best machines or build the best factories, electrical grids, oil refineries, water purification plans. But if it does not have skilled labor equipped with knowledge in areas of Internet communication, networking and ICT usage, it will unlikely be able to manage services adequately. Oftentimes, countries lacking qualified IT labor rely on outsourcing, which could be quite costly. Human resource development in the area of ICTs becomes a necessity if a country wants long-term success in developing its services.
“Open data initiatives bring with them opportunity costs. … Prioritizing open data at the expense of other, potentially more pressing, reform efforts is a non-trivial decision.”
It is important to consider ICTs not as a burden on budgets, but as a valuable investment, a complementary factor to help speed up development and enhance services in ways that may have not have been possible before. I presented the case e-government as an example of how ICTs could help promote transparency and accountability. Many countries, such as Yemen, could make good use of ICTs to help curb corruption and enhance the standard of living of its citizens. Hence, I strongly believe that ICTs should not be sidelined, but ought to be given attention along with other important societal services and needs.
Yes, it would need money, but with open-source solutions and competitive offers on the rise, I believe it is still it will be affordable, especially as it would come in a time of transition and change.
“It’s safe to say that the arguably most important piece of government data in Yemen — how much American intelligence services are funding the Yemeni military and security agencies — will never appear on data.gov.ye. So at a minimum, there’s a need to set expectations appropriately given the geopolitical context in Yemen at the moment.”
I don’t mind setting exceptions when necessary.
Finally, in response to your claim:
“An open data portal in Yemen may not be transformative when it comes to promoting democratic accountability in the country.”
Let me say that I am not asking for total transformation, but doing things better requires more transparency and that is very important to promote democratic accountability. I simply presented open data (perhaps through e-government portals) as one example of how investing in ICTs is not a waste of resources, but a way to enhance services in developing countries and enhance democracy and rule of law. I find such an example relevant to Yemen, which needs a new direction in enhancing transparency and accountability to break away from a past of corruption and secrecy.
I hope you get what I meant after this long comment 🙂
Thanks Nathaniel for raising some good questions in this post. This is a theme I hope we can contribute to a bit over the coming year with the http://www.opendataresearch.org project.
A few quick thoughts:
Reading Walid’s article suggests to me more that the ask is for ‘proactive transparency’ – which has been framed as ‘open data’, but which may be broader to ask for transparency of documents and wider public information as well. There is an interesting question to answer of whether having proactive transparency in a context where reactive transparency Right to Information rights are not yet established supports, or undermines, moves towards achieving a credible and effective RTI.
We also need to consider the different ways in which countries might use open data, and the different actors, national and international, who can be intermediaries for it. Programmer intermediaries are important for some uses of data, but not all.
Whilst, as you point out, there is some data unlikely to be proactively disclosed anywhere apart from via a WikiLeaks like source, there might be a lot of relevant international open data already about Yemen not sourced through the Yemen government. It would be interesting to look at what is already available, and how that is used, to understand capacity for working with data, and identify targeted areas where there are gaps in the information that local and diasporic groups need to use data in bringing about more open government in Yemen.