The Case Against Open Data in Yemen (By Global Integrity)
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 have had the pleasure of working with Walid off and on for several years; he has 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 is 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 publicize 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 long-term projects to enhancing telecommunication infrastructure and services to improve Internet access throughout the country.
Unfortunately, I think Walid is wrong on this. Here is 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 would 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 is 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 am just not sure it is there in Yemen.
Third, open data initiatives bring with them opportunity costs. Yemen cannot afford and will not 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 is 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.
Response by Walid Al-Saqaf
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 will 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, ShaZukang, 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 do not 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 cannot 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 will 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 cannot 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. Iam just not sure it is 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 is 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 do not 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.