South, East, and Southeast Asia
Asia1is the world’s most populous region, accounting for at least 40% of the global population and home to two of the world’s largest countries in terms of land size. Diversity characterises the region in terms of political, economic, and social characteristics. It is home to both mature and fledgling democracies. It hosts some of the world’s fastest, as well as the slowest, growing economies, resulting in a high level of inequality within countries, meaning a high degree of affluence for some and chronic destitution for others. Asian countries have varied origins, cultures, and colonial histories, painting a complex tapestry of religion, beliefs, and practices that underlie the regional identity.
The significance of the region on the global stage cannot be discounted. Emerging economies, such as China and India, are the source of a large proportion of the services and products distributed globally. Advanced economies, like Japan, have also been consistently large providers of development aid. Importantly, the volatile geo-political condition within the region has been a cause of concern for decades, including the perceived threat to global security caused by North Korea’s missile programme.
The record of countries in the region in terms of transparency and accountability is poor. In the latest Corruption Perceptions Index2released by Transparency International, more than half of Asia’s countries scored below 50, with at least a quarter of those countries considered to have issues with systemic corruption. Nevertheless, there have been significant attempts by several countries to install transparency measures and to make commitments toward greater openness. Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, are founding members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Five more of the region’s countries have since joined the OGP and are preparing or implementing national action plans to foster greater transparency, accountability, and citizen participation within their jurisdictions. At least a dozen Asian countries have Right To Information (RTI) laws that legislate citizens’ fundamental access to government information.
In the 4th edition of the Open Data Barometer,3the region performs comparatively better when compared to Africa and Latin America as it includes early adopters such as South Korea. Among lower-middle-income countries in the Global South, the Philippines leads the rankings in terms of open data implementation and impact. In a recent survey conducted by OpenDataSoft,4at least 23 countries in the region have web-based portals that publish open data on a regular basis.
But how do we describe the overall state of open data in the region? This chapter will attempt to describe the state of open data in Asia by discussing emerging trends that have characterised the journey of national governments in advancing open data initiatives.
When the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC), working with the World Wide Web Foundation, issued a call for proposals for a global research project “Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries”5in 2012, there were very few open data initiatives in the region. Indonesia and the Philippines were at the preliminary stages of their open data initiatives, launching open data portals in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and there were hardly any visible user groups identified, although there was some publishing of government data online, albeit in closed formats.
As a matter of fact, research on the state of open data in the region between 2012 and 2014 concluded that open data was still in its infancy67and country initiatives were plagued by data quality89problems that had led to more data dumping than use.1011But since then, significant improvements have been observed, along with attendant challenges.
Data availability is improving but limited
The Open Data Barometer12indicates that progress has been made in terms of data disclosure as governments in the region, both at the national and subnational levels, have initiated open data platforms as a means of data disclosure. To date, over 200 portals have been launched by different levels of government13to disclose various datasets on a range of government activities from budgeting and spending to water quality and land use, among many others. The Barometer also illustrates, however, that many of the key datasets required for holding governments accountable are not generally available in Asia. This includes data on land ownership, public contracting, company ownership, and elections. Japan, for example, is the only Asian country that the Barometer reports has disclosed spending data.
In the region, it must be noted that providing access to key datasets is not a task that is only taken seriously by governments. In Cambodia, as an example, a group of civil society organisations worked together to launch an online platform that publishes key datasets that are necessary not only for development planning, but also for research and advocacy.14In Malaysia, the Sinar Project has worked with researchers and activists to assemble data to visualise the intersection of public and private interests in national politics.15The same is true in India, where a civil society organisation collects and shares data on the quality of electricity supply.
CSO publishes power quality data16
Across the developing world, roughly 1.2 billion people do not have access to electricity. Of this number, at least 30% live in India. In addition, at least 247 million people in India experience irregular access to electricity with many receiving only four hours of service a day.
In 2007, the Prayas Energy Group, an Indian non-governmental organisation, launched the Electricity Supply Monitoring Initiative (ESMI) to collect real-time power quality information by installing Electricity Supply Monitors (ESMs) in various locations in the city of Pune, India. The data generated by the ESMs has been made available for free at a website set up by Prayas and it is presented in three different forms:
- Minute-by-minute voltage information of all monitored areas.
- Reports that analyse voltage data for each location.
- General analysis of the aggregated data that considers the voltage situation at the regional as well as the national level.
The availability of data is argued to have improved power quality, increased consumer satisfaction, and enabled evidence-based advocacy in the power sector.
Interestingly, many governments in the region have embraced the notion of open data within wider narratives on the pursuit of “smartness”. The Government of India, for example, has announced the development of 100 smart cities across the country, although this ambitious plan only draws upon a narrow notion of openness. Very often, cities are selectively opening up datasets to spur innovation and economic growth with less attention given to datasets that can aid transparency or government accountability.
Data use is increasing – but concentrated in high-income countries
The Open Data Impact Map17reports that many organisations in East Asia and the Pacific region, most of which are in the private sector, are using open data in a variety of economic sectors. However, these organisations are largely concentrated in higher income countries (see the box on South Korea). The same is true in South Asia, especially India, where IT, health, and geospatial companies are using open data; however, widespread use of open data, especially by non-state actors outside the private sector, is limited. While there are a few stellar examples of open data use in some countries (e.g. Kawal Pemilu18for election monitoring in Indonesia in 2014, Sakay.ph19for commuting in the Philippines, and gov.tw on budget monitoring in Taiwan), these are exceptions rather than the rule. This is largely because capacity issues are still prevalent for users20along with the persisting problems associated with the digital divide.21
Nevertheless, it is important to point out that data quality (i.e. timeliness, completeness, comparability, comprehensiveness, relevance) is a key factor in eliciting use. This is fundamental to users being able to use data, find relevance in engaging continuously with it, and develop products based on it. Unfortunately, except for advanced economies in the region, data quality is a systemic problem in most countries (e.g. the Open Data Readiness Assessment completed for Malaysia recommended that the country specifically work on improving data quality).22This is one of the reasons often given by government agencies for their reluctance to release datasets and often the main reason used to actively deny user requests for data publication. In Indonesia, the government is in the process of issuing a One Data Policy, putting a focus specifically on data quality and management systems in recognition of the inferior quality of many data assets.
South Korea: Generating economic value from open data23
Because of the high volume of datasets made publicly available in South Korea and a robust enabling environment that encourages the use of public data for innovative products and services, several private companies have benefited significantly. One of these companies in South Korea is AD Ventures, developers of “MediLatte”, which was launched publicly in 2012. This application provides customised hospital information services to South Koreans. AD Ventures made use of hospital information provided by the National Health Insurance Service and those of local governments to provide users with information on hospitals, their location, services, number of doctors, times of operations, peak hours, and service reviews to enable them to select which health service provider to use and for what purpose. For hospitals, the app added value by reducing marketing costs and ensuring better health service delivery through customer feedback.
As of 2015, MediLatte had earned USD 1 million in revenue and another USD 1 million in capital investments. The app has been used by 600 000 users and received 30 000 daily visits.
Nevertheless, governments should not use data quality as a main reason for foregoing data disclosure. As a matter of fact, research conducted by the Open Data Institute (ODI)24has shown that opening up data sets has a consequent effect on improving data quality which then benefits the government’s ongoing use. Other examples from the Open Data Lab in Jakarta25have also shown that publishing datasets will reveal inconsistencies in the data, alerting government agencies to institute improvements in their data collection and aggregation processes.
New civil society actors and networks are emerging
In the last three years, we have seen a growing number of actors in the open data space in most countries in the region. Figure 1 below shows a preliminary inventory of stakeholders that have been active in the open data space. Though the figure is not exhaustive, it illustrates how widespread the open data movement is across the region with different actors working in-country on different issues and concerns related to transparency and accountability, public service delivery, and innovation in a range of thematic sectors, such as education, health, environment, transport, and economic development. As a result, new cross-regional partnerships have emerged, including the Sinar Project in Malaysia working with Phandeeyar in Myanmar to develop an app for monitoring legislative activities.26
Ongoing cross-country networks have also emerged, some formal, others informal. For example, Open Development Mekong is a network of countries publishing open data in countries within the Mekong region, while Asia Open Data Partnership is a network of organisations in different countries working on open data particularly in the private sector that has held annual conferences of its partners in the last three years. Informal networks also exist, such as the group of stakeholders who gathered in 2014 to define the Open Data Agenda for Asia to 2020. Within countries, there is also the increasing emergence of open data networks. For example, Open Nepal, initially established in 2013, is a growing community of practice in Kathmandu that meets regularly to share open data experiences and plan collective action on an open data agenda. Informal networks based on social media platforms are also growing, including Indonesia’s open data WhatsApp group which now has 144 open data advocates and the Philippine’s open data Facebook group which has more than 8,900 followers.
Yet for the most part, these networks remain disconnected from each other, and there is no one single network of open data actors in the region as yet with the individual networks mentioned above frequently operating mostly in silos. Major obstacles to collaboration in the region are the lack of a common language across countries, differences in political and economic trajectories, and the lack of opportunities to work together and coordinate.
CSO-led initiatives are increasing in number, but lack sustainability
The emergence of new actors and partnerships has increased the number of open data initiatives in the region. In several countries, different organisations, including those mentioned above, have developed and led several open data projects in many sectors, such as health, education, natural resource governance, and public administration. However, many of these interventions are donor-funded, creating issues around the sustainability for these projects and raising questions about their ability to scale in order to achieve wider and more pervasive results.
The rush by donors toward achieving measurable impacts has also significantly constrained the ability of organisations to obtain funding beyond the pilot stage. In several cases, pilots remain pilots only because of a lack of donor support beyond initial implementation. While private companies using data can attract private investment even during the startup phase, this is hardly the case for non-profits whose aim is to improve transparency and accountability in governments, improve public service delivery, or promote economic inclusion of the disadvantaged. These are big challenges and complex problems that initial pilots will not be able to solve outright, much less achieve lasting impact over the short-term timelines often demanded by funders.
In the last two years, organisations like Code for Nepal, the Sinar Project, and the Open Data Lab Jakarta, among others, have faced funding constraints and been unable to continue pilot projects beyond the pilot period, losing precious human capital in the process as staff move on to more stable employment. This also restricts the ability of these actors to explore new avenues of open data work, such as those related to gender, public service delivery, youth and children, and inclusive development.
Open data outcomes exist, but solid evidence of impact is elusive
Open data initiatives have started to show significant outcomes in a few countries, but with fewer “quantifiable” concrete impacts as yet. Funders are hungry for stories of impact, but the Open Data Barometer (3rd edition) reports that while “there is an increasing evidence that open data is improving government efficiency”, open data has not yet “translated into concrete improvements in the lives of ordinary people, especially the traditionally marginalised groups”.27Although there is evidence that points to achievements at the outcome level (e.g. changes in practices and behaviour), it is still difficult to identify improvements in the lives of people that can be directly attributed to open data. Nevertheless, there are specific instances when open data has been cited as lifesaving (see the box on Nepal). While quantifying the specific impact of open data is not possible, such cases do highlight that having clearly defined problems to be addressed by open data is critical to gathering evidence that can ultimately determine its ability to make a difference.
Nepal: Using open data for post-disaster relief operations28
Natural disasters occur frequently in Asia, and in most cases, aid delivery to the most affected areas is hampered by logistical problems and a lack of data. After two devastating earthquakes occurred in Nepal in 2015, the government, aid organisations, and other early responders faced significant problems in identifying and prioritising needs related to support and assistance. Several open data activists in the country used open data to identify areas affected, prioritise needs, target relief efforts, and ensure timely aid delivery. This work resulted in post-quake maps that were used by responders to locate Nepalis needing urgent assistance, facilitate timely response, and ensure accountability in aid delivery. At the same time, initiatives allowed opportunities for affected citizens to share feedback with the government (e.g. Kathmandu Living Lab’s Quake Map, Young Innovation’s Earthquake Response Transparency Portal, and Code for Nepal’s Rahat Payo (did you get relief) initiative).
While it is difficult to ascertain how many lives were saved, anecdotal evidence suggests that open data initiatives enabled the mapping of 80% of quake-affected areas. This information was used by responders to ensure that aid delivery reached affected communities.
Open data actors need to find ways to navigate political environments
For several countries in the region, open data initiatives have thrived due to a strong enabling environment. This includes the presence of a legal framework that strengthens citizens’ rights to information and data, the political commitment of country leaders to promote openness, a thriving civil society, and a free press. But recent political events have risked the sustainability of open data initiatives undertaken by governments because of fledgling or fluctuating political commitments and increasingly constricted civic space even in leading countries.
Indonesia and the Philippines were two of the pioneering countries behind the founding of the OGP, but, more recently, concerns have been raised with regard to the shrinking of civic space in these countries (see the box on the Philippines). This is also true in Myanmar, where even freedom of speech is curtailed and speaking against the policies of the ruling government is a criminal offense.29In China, “shortfalls in civic and political rights arrest the benefits of open data at an early stage”.30Attacks on basic democratic freedoms in several countries in the region have prompted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and European Union (EU) parliamentarians to issue calls to respect human rights and the rule of law in the region.31In Cambodia, for example, the national government has issued laws to restrict the freedom of expression and coordinated attacks against media,32while in Vietnam, the government has used legislative processes to potentially control dissenting voices by requiring tech companies to store locally important data and take down offensive content at the request of government.33
Philippines: Open data initiatives and changes in the political environment
The Open Data Barometer identified the Philippines as the most improved country in their 2016 report, but the assessment only covered the period up to June 2016 as the country was still transitioning to a new political leadership. With the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, open data has taken a back seat. Following the election, the government’s open data portal was inactive for two months to allow for redesign, but when it was launched again, historical information previously available could no longer be found, including procurement data. The focus was also shifted to the reactive disclosure of information as the president issued an executive order on the right to information that covered only the executive branch of government.
Several reports have confirmed that civil society and freedom of speech have also been assailed and dissenting voices targeted for repression. One senator who has been vocal against the president’s war on drugs is currently serving jail term, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was recently removed from office for political reasons. News outfit Rappler, which is perceived to be critical of the president, has also had its licences revoked, and human rights groups have been accused of being used by drug syndicates to undermine the government’s efforts against drug trafficking.
However, civil society organisations have found creative ways to implement open data initiatives and use the right to information as a substitute platform. It is still to be seen whether these initiatives can withstand all the current challenges brought about by the changing political climate.
Open data activists in the region are finding alternative means to engage in open data work, including working with other information providers to piece together accountability stories as with the Sinar Project in Malaysia,34using legal channels to resist state-sponsored attacks against journalists as with the media company Rappler in the Philippines,35or engaging directly with government agencies who are willing to open up data sets to innovators who can use data to create innovative products as in Shanghai, China.36While far from desirable, it is likely that open data actors in the region will have to continue to adapt to changes in the political environment with significant creativity over the coming years.
National initiatives still need to permeate to the local level
In most cases, open data initiatives are orchestrated at the national level except in China, where regional governments have steamed ahead of national commitment to publish open datasets.37Unlike other countries, such as the United States and Canada, countries in Asia demonstrate relatively few examples of open data initiatives that have originated at the state or local level of government. For example, only four of 29 states and seven union territories in India have an official open data portal. Similarly, the Bangladesh Open Data Strategy,38approved in 2016, focused only on the release and publication of data at the national level.
This noted, there are some examples where countries have had more success establishing subnational initiatives. In the case of Indonesia in particular, more and more local governments outside the capital city of Jakarta have been successful not only in publishing data sets, but also in eliciting public use of that data (see the box on Indonesia).
Indonesia: Encouraging open data at the subnational level
Indonesia is one of the few countries in the region that has successfully encouraged the publication and use of open data at the subnational level. While the capital city of Jakarta is one of the forerunners in the region in terms of data publication and the use of data to solve specific problems associated with traffic (e.g. Waze), flooding (e.g. Petabencana), and public service delivery (e.g. Qlue), more and more subnational governments are joining the journey toward greater openness in the country.
The city of Banda Aceh has shown how proactive data disclosure can support better education planning and contribute to better economic opportunities for local producers. In the regency of Bojonegoro, citizen input was included in the budgeting process, and the resulting budget data has been disclosed publicly so that citizens can communicate their level of satisfaction with how their articulated priorities were handled by the government. In the city of Yogyakarta, a local civil society organisation has worked with the local government to make budget data widely available to the public to promote more discussions on gender-related budgeting and spending.
Contributing to this spread of open data initiatives are the government’s efforts to promote open governance. In 2016, Indonesia was the only government in the region to include subnational targets in its National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership, and government efforts in this area are complemented by local actors who have matched the government’s publication of key datasets with their own efforts to encourage data use.
Conclusions and looking ahead
Back in 2015, a group of actors from countries in the region gathered together in Jakarta, Indonesia, to define what they would like to see in the open data movement by 2020.39The group identified three key desired outcomes that are listed and illustrated in the figure below:
- Governments show strong leadership and commitment to open data at both national and subnational levels.
- Stakeholders and sector actors collaborate on open data initiatives.
- Citizens have the capacity to use and benefit from open data.
The trajectory of the region has included significant strides toward these three outcomes, not only in terms of governments providing users with access to key datasets, but also by encouraging data use to achieve social, economic, and political impact. At the same time, new actors have emerged who have made use of publicly available data to solve specific problems, improving public service delivery, strengthening government bureaucracy and accountability, and catalysing economic growth. Reviewing what has been achieved to date and comparing the current state of open data to when the open data movement was at its infancy stage at the start of this decade, significant milestones have been achieved to lay the foundation for more openness, better transparency, and strengthened accountability through open data.
Notwithstanding these achievements, several challenges remain across the region. Data availability is far from optimal, especially for some critical accountability datasets. For most countries, data quality remains an issue, necessitating the reform of data management systems, and unstable political climates pose threats to the open data movement and the success of open data initiatives. Finally, several open data initiatives face sustainability issues, owing largely to decreasing sources of funding for open data initiatives on the ground. There are several core areas of activity to be pursued to strengthen open data activities in the region:
- Open data activists need to advocate for countries in the region to open more quality datasets. Toward this end, international indices, such as the Open Data Barometer and the Global Open Data Index, are useful levers to help lobby for reforms with government officials. Many countries, including South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia, have used these indices as the basis for structuring their data disclosure practices. Advocacy is also needed to push for new legal frameworks to enable data disclosure, and, in particular, to secure right to information laws, as well as national open data policies. For OGP member countries, advocates should work to secure commitments to more data openness are included in the National Action Plans.
- Strengthen coordination among open data stakeholders for knowledge sharing, collective action, and scaling impact. There are already existing networks within and among countries in the region. This momentum can be continued by creating a common platform where networks and organisations can share resources, lessons learned, good practices, and skills to foster greater collaboration. Consolidating currently available networks needs to be considered to improve coordination and the efficient use of resources, as well as strengthen collective impact.
- Project implementers, researchers, and academics need to improve documentation and research on the impacts/outcomes achieved by using open data. While there have been a few research programmes documenting what has been achieved by open data initiatives, there are many stories of change that have not been adequately documented and made widely available. Universities and research institutes in the region should document these practices, looking not only at successes but also failures, so that lessons from implementation can be shared and used to influence the design and implementation of future open data initiatives.
- Donors need to continue funding new open data initiatives to help scale existing successful activities. Currently, open data initiatives, particularly those that are intended to strengthen transparency and accountability in governments and improve service delivery, need donor funding until such time that appropriate business models are identified for their sustainability. New and innovative projects will not see the light of day without donor support and pilot projects cannot be scaled without donor funding through their initial phases.
- National governments should promote open data activities at the subnational or local levels. Ensuring that subnational governments are participating in open data initiatives is critical because open data is often argued to have more tangible impact at the local level.40Public data often includes granular information capable of addressing the kinds of problems that citizens face day-to-day, and it can be used to generate customised solutions that have tangible impact.
Sustainable impact resulting from open data activities in Asia is not as yet guaranteed, but with the right research, action, and investment in the five core areas discussed, the movement has every chance of expanding and maturing in the years ahead.