In The News

The Power of Open Data in Asia

February 19, 2014

Open Data Day 2014 on February 22 is gearing up to be a momentous global event, not least of all in Asia where over 40 unique hackathons will be held in cities throughout India, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. These hackathons, or “codefests,” will draw software developers, interface designers, and data scientists together to build innovative technology applications using open public data. Open Data Day is a highly anticipated occasion as it underscores the critical role that open data plays across national, regional, and local governments across the world.

This global movement is a confluence of 21st century trends: the upsurge in global internet connectivity, the rise of citizen engagement and community-centered development, advances in technological computation, and the more systematic collection of more data points. As it relates to government, open data includes socioeconomic indicators, budget information, elections, public services, and more. However, these datasets are so large and complex that they are often hard to collate and analyze, or even upload. Well-meaning actors can invest significant resources into uploading data but the initiative can self-destruct if data is held captive in non machine-readable format (i.e. PDF files), if there is no plan for regular updates of the datasets, or if there is no guide for accessing and using databases.

Developing a public Application Programming Interface, or API, is one way to provide easier access to open data. For example, the Google Maps API provides us with access to geolocation data for apps like WhatsApp and The New York Times. An API provides a set of instructions and direct interface functions to the database that contains data – some of which may have previously resided in PDF format. Software developers access these APIs to call on, structure, analyze, and code with the data that sit behind this API. These developers can then create innovative web and mobile applications that the wider public can download and use on their computers or handsets. This provides citizens with an easy-to-use, informative, and engaging way to view data that was once inaccessible.

In Asia, the open data movement is considered fairly nascent. Though the number of internet users in the region has gone from 418 million in 2007 to over 1 billion in 2012, some governments have been slow to open their decision-making processes and data repositories. Freedom of Information (FOI) or Rights to Information (RTI) Acts are important legislative tools that help build a culture of government transparency and accountability, and a strong backbone for the sustainability of open data initiatives. India, South Korea, and Hong Kong passed such acts in the late 1990s, recognizing the right of their citizens to access state-held public information. These three governments have all published open data portals. At the city level, these apps are helping citizens pay for parking spots or map public services like parks and restrooms. A testament to citizen interest in these portals: in a 16-month period that ended in October 2012, 2.35 million data sets were downloaded and 1,079 applications created off of the U.S. government’s open data website. In India, the government hosted an OpenDataApps Challenge (a hackathon that ran between August and October last year) to raise awareness among young entrepreneurs from the tech industry about data-driven innovation for civic purposes.

More recent enforcements of FOI Acts in Bangladesh (in 2009), Indonesia (in 2010), Mongolia (in 2011), and the Philippines (expected this year) will hopefully herald more open government data portals as well as initiatives by non-state actors. One such project is Open Cities, which aims to gather asset and exposure data in South Asian mega-cities to facilitate the creation of tools and applications that improve urban planning and disaster resilience. One of their successes: a 3D map of Dhaka, Bangladesh, that displays information about various building uses, conditions, and associated risks. Meanwhile, the World Bank is responding to calls for more sub-national data with INDO-DAPOER, the bank’s first database to feature both province and district level fiscal, economic, social demographic, and infrastructure data. OpenNepal is another civil society initiative which features 68 datasets across 19 sectors on its website, with a focus on increasing foreign aid transparency and development budgets.

The Asia Foundation approaches open data as a tool for amplifying accountability and good governance principles across the Asia-Pacific region. Through the use of APIs, data can be collected and standardized into a central repository; local developers can use the API to build tools facilitating feedback loops, and citizens can engage more directly with their governments through these tools.

One use case for the above framework is in civic education and election information. The Foundation is supporting an Indonesian civil society organization, Perludem, to build a civic education API as an open data tool to improve voter education for the upcoming legislative and presidential elections in April and June this year. The API will give access to troves of election-related data such as political candidates’ work and education history, that Indonesian software developers can use to build informative mobile and web-based applications. In a country with 187 million eligible voters and 74.6 million web users, this API has a potentially wide reach. It is anticipated that such a project will energize Indonesia’s budding civic-minded developer community, online, connected voters – including the country’s 67-million first-time young voters.

Where will you be on Open Data Day 2014? Make sure to check the map of open data events happening near you. There is also a community wiki page and a github website for developers. The Foundation-supported Perludem will be celebrating Open Data Day with a civic education hackathon highlighting the civic education API on March 8-9* in Bandung, Indonesia.

*Editor’s note: This date has been changed from the original post.

Nicolas Picard is a program associate and Michelle Chang is ICT manager, both for The Asia Foundation’s Digital Media and Technology Programs unit in San Francisco. They can be reached at nicolas.picard@asiafoundation.org and michelle.chang@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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