The Case Against Open Data in Yemen

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.)

Nathaniel Heller

— photo: screenshot of Indaba being blocked in Yemen (2011)

3 Comments. Leave new

Alex Howard
July 5, 2012 8:50 am

Nathan,

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.

http://radar.oreilly.com/2012/04/what-responsibilities-and-chal.html

Cheers,

Alex

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