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OGP Global Summit: Open Government = Open Knowledge

November 4, 2015

Over 1,500 representatives from civil society organizations, businesses, and governments gathered in Mexico City on October 28-29 for the Open Government Partnership’s Global Summit, with special attention this year on the role that open government can play in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the Post-2015 Development Agenda. In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with three Asia Foundation experts who participated in the SummitJohn Karr, Ellen Boccuzzi, and Mark Koenig – for their reactions.

Photo/Open Government Partnership

Photo/Open Government Partnership

The rallying cry of the Summit was how Open Government Partnership can help deliver the new SDGs, culminating with a declaration in support of the 2030 Agenda, which outlines the importance of OGP’s core values of transparency, accountability, and citizen participation. What are your thoughts on this goal after your meetings?

Ellen Boccuzzi: OGP and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are complementary in their support for transparency, participation, and accountability as critical objectives in and of themselves, and as instrumental means of attaining improved development outcomes across all sectors. SDG Goal 16 calls for building “effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels,” and several of the other SDGs recognize principles of participation and inclusivity as essential in meeting SDG targets related to poverty, education, climate change, and others.

Beyond this, OGP National Action Plans (NAPs) provide clear platforms for implementation of the SDGs by translating the SDGs into concrete actions at the country level. Each OGP participating country must create a two-year NAP that lays out a clear set of commitments to advance transparency, accountability, participation and/or technological innovation in that country. A long list of OGP partner countries have already endorsed the Joint Declaration on Open Government for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, committing these countries to use their NAPs to help achieve the SDGs. In Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka have already signed this Declaration, as have many regional and international civil society organizations operating in Asia.

What do you think are the biggest areas of progress that will allow Asia to move forward with these goals, and what are the biggest roadblocks?

EB: A challenge for the region remains the relatively low number of countries participating in OGP overall. Currently, there are just six: Indonesia, the Philippines, Mongolia, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka. Another six countries in Asia are eligible for the partnership – they have met the required transparency and accountability milestones – but have yet to sign on.

Broad participation across the region will help ensure that civil society and government can work together to achieve shared goals of openness and accountability in support of improved development outcomes across Asia. Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea just demonstrated their commitment to these goals by becoming the newest members of OGP (along with Cote d’Ivoire) at last week’s Summit, and countries like Timor-Leste are actively working to meet OGP eligibility requirements—these are promising developments.

John Karr: In order to promote a contemporary form of open government, a kind that is accessible to citizens via the mobile and web tools that they use every day, it’s important that we work to bridge gaps between civil society, government, and local, private sector software developers in Asia. It’s important because a) you can’t leave government out of the conversation, and b) many CSOs and smart, young developers tend to be a bit suspicious of government. So, The Asia Foundation invests in these relationships in three ways: 1) we help structure key data sets in machine-readable formats and work with partners to expose this data to the public, and in ways that software developers can easily integrate into applications; 2) we do a wide range of valuable research on end-users – including nationwide surveys, usability testing, and focus groups – to identify real problems that citizens want solved and we make this data public; and 3) we work very hard to bring CSOs and private sector developers into a productive dialogue with government through activities that build confidence and promote understanding.

The Asia Foundation led a panel at the Summit on Smart Governments: Planning and Delivering Next Generation Public Service. What were some of the key takeaways from that panel?

Mark Koenig: Our panel gave us an opportunity to reflect on a variety of our programming experiences that draw on the principles, ideas, and tools of open governance across a variety of programs. In fact, we rarely set out specifically to do “open governance” programs, but draw on the lessons from that movement to solve specific problems in the specific contexts that we work in. Open data, information, and knowledge can lead to improvements in governance in a wide variety of ways, from increasing accountability and reducing corruption, to unleashing the power of developers and citizens to use information to resolve their own challenges. It can also be transformative in places where improving the valuation of and access to knowledge and data within governments can start to change habits and behaviors and make bureaucrats and decision-makers more likely to draw on evidence in policy-making.

One example is in Mongolia, where The Asia Foundation has worked closely with the Ulaanbaatar city government to collect information from the communities living in the city’s unplanned settlements to both improve the knowledge of all citizens about the service gaps in their neighborhoods, and start moving the city government toward a budgeting and planning process that references spatial and needs analyses to assess the importance of potential investments. This program developed out of problem solving undertaken with our local partners, and has had rapid impact and demonstrated the possibilities offered by open government.

EB: Another important takeaway from our panel (and several others at the Summit) was the importance of engaging the private sector as a partner to both government and civil society in efforts to improve governance and other development outcomes. The private sector is generally in the lead on technological innovation and can operate more nimbly than government, particularly in the case of tech startups. There is therefore space for germane collaboration among these actors, with government making data available, private sector companies developing apps and innovative ways to use this data, and civil society organizations helping to identify the critical issues to be addressed and the constituencies for whom this data should be made more usable and accessible.

The Asia Foundation has recently engaged young developers in Indonesia and Myanmar to help make election-related information more accessible to the public. Can you talk about that work, and what role technology can play in making elections more open? What were the biggest challenges in getting these projects running?

JK: In Indonesia and Myanmar we have employed an open API strategy – an approach that gives software developers free and open access to very large databases of election data – which we then follow with hackathons, app challenges, and public outreach to media and other organizations. We work with CSOs and the government to collect the relevant data, and encourage anyone with an interest in application development to use the available information in ways that reach citizens. The API makes it easier for developers working independently or with CSOs or the media to quickly build applications that give citizens new ways of discovering information on candidates, on the election process, or even details like correct way to mark a ballot. We’ve reached millions of voters with data that they might not have been able to access otherwise.

The biggest challenge is often collecting the data in the first place. Even though we work primarily with data that the government has already publicly released, the information is not typically in a format that developers can use to create web or mobile-based apps. So we support initial efforts to transform available data sets into machine readable content, and we do that in partnership with government, CSOs, and private sector partners.

There were a number of lively discussions around “open data” and what that means for citizens. What exactly does it mean?

MK: At the Summit, I heard one participant ask that we shift from speaking about open data to open knowledge, which resonated as there is such a wide range of applications for the concept. The basic idea is that the more that knowledge is shared, discussed, and engaged with, it will enable greater contributions to be made by those in government and civil society to the improvement of governance and decision-making. The speed at which innovations are developing both in terms of how we can analyze and use information and data is amazingly fast right now, and we cannot even predict how data and knowledge will be used in the near future. Making knowledge and data available broadly is the only way to fuel innovations in how we engage with information to make more thoughtful and informed decisions.

John Karr is The Asia Foundation’s senior director of Digital Media and Technology Programs, Ellen Boccuzzi is acting director of the Governance and Law unit, and Mark Koenig is associate director of the Foundation’s Program Strategy, Innovation, and Learning (PSIL) unit. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewees and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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