e - DIRAP Google+ Hangout: Open Government

Posted by Christine Apikul at Sep 18, 2013 10:40 AM |
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The e-DIRAP Hangout on Open Government was held on Thursday, 25 July 2013. It brought together nine professionals from Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines to discuss the wide spectrum of issues surrounding open government.

See the original published in Digital Review Asia here

The idea of open government has been around for hundreds of years but the contemporary use of the term is influenced by the rapid advancement of ICTs and by the open source movement. "Just as open source software allows users to change and contribute to the source code of their software, open government now means government where citizens not only have access to information, documents and proceedings, but can also become participants in a meaningful way."[1] There is now increasing pressure for governments to be more open with their digital documents and processes, and to interact with citizens.

To assess whether your government is open, a good starting point is the Open Government Partnership minimum eligibility criteria that has four key areas:[2]

  1. Fiscal transparency related to open budget system
  2. Access to information, e.g. an access to information law that guarantees the public’s right to information and access to government data.
  3. Disclosures related to elected or senior public officials, e.g. public disclosure of their income and assets.
  4. Citizen engagement.

The panelists discussed open government initiatives in their respective countries, the challenges they face, and open source tools for open government.

Open Government Initiatives

The Government of India has decided to use royalty free open standards for all e-government data. The government has also shortlisted a number of open standards. India’s data portal, data.gov.in was recently launched and the number of datasets has been increasing. In January 2013 there were 89 datasets and in half a year,this has increased to over 3,000 datasets. Forty-five government departments are involved in this initiative and six apps have been created. The Planning Commission recently had a hackathon participated by about 1,900 people.

Indonesia is one of the founding governments of the Open Government Partnership.[3] along with the Philippines and six other countries. The emphasis of open government in Indonesia is not only the "supply side" (i.e. government providing access to data and information). It is also looking at generating demand for open government by empowering citizens to access and analyse data and information, voice their concerns and advocate for openness in government. To empower citizens, the Government of Indonesia has a number of projects such as "Satu Layanan"[4] or "One Service", a web portal where citizens can find government information and services; “One Map”, to promote collaboration between different government ministries and agencies, and also civil society in integrating datasets; and "Lapor"[5] that allow citizens to report wrongdoings in public services using SMS, Twitter or through the website.

According to a research study conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation,[6] the Government of Indonesia is working on making public data available. Public data includes social - economic data, development data and census data held by the National Statistic Bureau, as well as information on how the data is obtained and measured.

The research report also found that that there is a low demand from civil society and citizens for open government and open data. Moreover, cooperation between civil society and government in the implementation of open government is not strong enough. Several donors in Indonesia have provided support to develop the capacity of civil society groups that are part of the Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership. Hivos’ Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative[7] is working with both civil society and government in Indonesia and the Philippines to promote transparency and accountability in public institutions.

In Japan, the major focus is in the creation and launch of the open data portal this year. How much impact it will make and how it can be measured is a concern, and this is a worldwide challenge.

The Sinar Project[8] in Malaysia promotes transparency, governance and citizen involvement, and uses open source technology to make information accessible to Malaysian citizens. The project has learned that for countries with poor democracy like Malaysia, basic information about government is available but not easily accessible to the public. The government is not familiar with interacting with citizens especially online. Unlike places with advanced statistics and open data, open government in Malaysia is at a nascent stage and is about having information about government representatives online and what bills are being passed in parliament.

In the Philippines, President Aquino announced that the Freedom of Information Bill will be a priority bill for Congress this year, but citizens are cynical about the passing of this bill because it has been under consideration for three years. The Office of the President has received support from the World Bank last year for an Open Data Project using CKAN and the open data portal will be at http://data.gov.ph. The Philippine Government Interoperability Framework was convened last week.

PhilHealth or the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation[9] attempted to open up data, however even though there was political will to open up data, this was insufficient. A clear policy framework and change management (particularly, removing the fear of openness among employees) was needed.

Moreover, PhilHealth did not have the capacity and competency to ensure that the health data released, that includes diagnosis and treatment procedures, will not be reverse engineered to identify people. Health data is particularly sensitive due to the social stigma of certain health disorders, for example, those with tuberculosis may be assumed to have HIV/AIDS. When data is opened up, there are security and privacy implications. Developing countries need help and it is important to work together to come up with policies, protocols and algorithms to protect the health privacy of citizens.

Melbourne, Australia
In Melbourne, Australia, local government efforts to engage with citizens more fully through online and offline platforms include experimenting with wiki-based policy development, smart cities initiatives and digital strategies. Through conversations with policymakers, some key themes were identified. First, openness is not the same as participation, and encouraging effective participation is a challenge. Public spaces need to be “programmed” to support participation, and opening up data is not sufficient. It is necessary to develop strategies for outreach to a diverse group and encourage substantive participation particularly from those who are not online and not as competent in data management.

Secondly, because many telecommunications platforms that make data available are privately owned, there is a tension between commercial interest for secrecy and public demand to make data open. It is also a challenge for government to engage with citizens over an infrastructure that is privately owned, e.g. Facebook, Twitter and Google that place constraints on how citizens can be engaged.

Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand with high levels of digital broadband penetration and online users are not part of the Open Government Partnership despite the fact that most of the government departments and data are online. This is because these countries do not meet the minimum eligibility criteria for Open Government Partnership. For instance, they do not have freedom of the press and without it media and civil society cannot make use of the data for reporting for fear of prosecution.

There is also a lack of political will to disclose assets of public officials and procurement decisions.

Open data is often associated with open government, but opening up data does not make a government open. Making data open has a set of challenges, but open government also has an important civil society component to create demand for open government and make meaningful use of the open data. There is also a private sector component that needs to be considered, particularly related to the mechanisms public participation over privately owned telecommunications infrastructure.

Challenges are faced at both the supply and demand sides. From the government side, many countries do not have the capacity to interact effectively with citizens. From the citizens’ side, many countries face the low demand for open government. Yet, in the case of Malaysia, even if public demand for open government is high, the missing component is a strong and large enough civil society base that can handle and analyse data independently and question policy. Dealing with the demand when data is open is another challenge. The challenges of opening up data If the original data is not digitized, how do we ensure that it becomes part of open data as defined by the Open Knowledge Foundation.[10] For countries such as Iraq that are simultaneously introducing e-government systems and open government, implementation is hampered by the lack of e-government data standards for specific domains such as human resources management or financial management.


Privacy is one of the biggest concerns that the open data and open government movements faces.

Lack of exposure to privacy issues: Some open data activists are not aware that privacy should be an exception in disclosure requirement of government open data policies. If no public interest is served through disclosing personal information then there is no need to infringe upon the rights of individuals.

Privacy only for the individual: There is often a western notion of what constitutes privacy in which people worry about privacy infringement only at the level of the individual. But in India, if the open dataset showed HIV/AIDS prevalence at the village level that could result in stigma and discrimination of particular villages. The privacy problem exists not only at the individual level, but also at the level of family, community and geographical unit.

Underestimating re-identification research: Today we deal with the privacy challenge by using techniques like anonymization and obfuscation, but the problem is that re-identification research is getting more sophisticated and the more datasets that people have access to and are able to overlay upon one another, the more likely it is to re-identify anonymous or obfuscated data. This is an issue that the open data movement should take seriously.

Conflict with the transparency movement: The open data movement has not fully adopted principles from the transparency movement. This can be clearly seen in some countries where freedom of information activists are being killed or assaulted, but open data activists are usually safe because they are focused on analyzing the data that the governments have opened up. The provision of large quantities of data by government may be a distraction strategy that takes away what is important for civil society and democracy. Moreover, open data should not be the means to legitimize and increase the levels of surveillance occurring at the bottom of the pyramid. Instead, we need to encourage more eyes to watch the top of the pyramid because single actions there can have dramatic consequences for public interest.

For public participation in local government, FixMyStreet[11] is an open source software first developed by MySociety in the UK that allows the public to report on issues on a map. MySociety has also developed a number of other tools to help with government’s engagement with citizens.

OpenSpending[12] is used to visualize budget data and how tax money is being spent. This is a useful tool for transparency developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

CKAN[13] is an open source data portal platform that many countries have used for their open data portal. This is also an Open Knowledge Foundation project.

The Sunlight Foundation[14] and Code for America[15] are organizations that develop a number of open source tools that can be re-used and adapted by countries in Asia and the Pacific.

A free de-identification software for automated location and removal of protected health information in free text from medical records has been developed by PhysioNet.[16]

The Strategic Alliance Against Impoverishment (SAPA) provides poverty data on their website and maps the location of their projects.[17]

Final Words for the Way Forward

Make open government an election issue and elect officials that are open.

Demands for engagement may conflict with political goals of representatives in terms of the election cycle. Perhaps these open government issues need a third space to insulate them from political forces.

For people interested in implementing technical solutions, it is important to also look into non-technical issues raised by the Open Government Partnership and the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness.[18]

Make data available based on the needs of citizens and provide a platform for citizens’ feedback to inform the kinds of data to open up.

Open government should be relevant to citizens and result in improving the welfare of citizens.

Improve citizens’ data literacy and use open data in decision-making.

Openness is only a means and in the end we need governments that are accountable, that protect the public interest, that protect the weakest members of society, and they are not automatically guaranteed through open government. We should not fetishize the means and forget the ends.

At the top we need political leadership with strong inclination and will, and on the ground we need close coordination between civil society and government so that government does understand what is needed and sense what impact they can make by opening themselves up to their society or to their own operations. In the long term the key is how much the government can transform itself in terms of its own operations, and how much data they can produce in a reusable format and how much data they can use from other agencies to improve their operations.

The core of open government is about partnership between government, civil society and the private sector, and this is not easy.


  • Danny Butt, Research Fellow in Participatory Public Space, University of Melbourne, Australia
  • Sunil Abraham, Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society, India
  • Venkatesh Hariharan, Director, Knowledge Commons, India (previously, Head of Public Policy at Google India)
  • Maryati Abdullah, National Coordinator, Publish What You Pay, Indonesia (also Steering Committee Member of Open Government Partnership)
  • Yanuar Nugroho, Director and Expert Adviser to the Head of the President's Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight (UKP4), Indonesia – to be confirmed
  • Tomoaki Watanabe, Executive Research Fellow, Centre for Global Communications, International University of Japan (also Executive Director of Common Sphere - the host of Creative Commons Japan, and Co-founder of Open Knowledge Foundation Japan)
  • Shita Laksmi, Program Manager, Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative, Hivos Regional Office Southeast Asia
  • Alvin B. Marcelo, Co-chair, Asia eHealth Information Network

Moderator: Khairil Yusof, Co-founder, Sinar Project, Malaysia (also e-DIRAP team member)

e-DIRAP Hangout Coordinator: Christine Apikul

[1]. See 20 Basics of Open Government, http://basics.open4m.org/

[2]. http://www.opengovpartnership.org/eligibility

[3]. http://www.opengovpartnership.org

[4]. http://satulayanan.net

[5]. http://lapor.ukp.go.id; See also http://www.techinasia.com/lapor-deeper-indonesias-newest-anticorruption-weapon/

[6]. “Even though the Law on Freedom of Information has been in place for five years and while some ministries and agencies have made data available online, it is often difficult to obtain and make use of the data due to bureaucratic procedures, charging requirements, copyright restrictions or a general reluctance to provide access to government data to external users.” World Wide Web Foundation, Open Government Data: Readiness Assessment Indonesia, 28 June 2013, http://www.webfoundation.org/2013/06/new-research-open-data-in-indonesia/

[7]. http://seatti.org

[8]. http://sinarproject.org

[9]. http://www.philhealth.gov.ph

[10]. http://okfn.org/opendata/

[11]. http://www.fixmystreet.com

[12]. http://openspending.org

[13]. http://ckan.org

[14]. http://sunlightfoundation.com/tools

[15]. http://codeforamerica.org/apps/

[16]. http://www.physionet.org/physiotools/deid/

[17]. http://www.sapa.or.id/

[18]. http://www.openingparliament.org/declaration

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