Free access to information vital

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 16 Oct 2016

Open to all: In the case of exposed high-voltage wires at parks, it is important for local councils to make their data fully and freely available to the public.

WHEN Khairil Yusof found exposed electrical wiring at a lamp post in a playground in Subang Jaya, he realised how little information was actually available about the extent of the problem.

It worried him, especially since it is not a problem to be taken lightly – in 2011, ten-year-old Mohd Naqiuddin Marzuki was electrocuted when he accidentally touched an exposed high-voltage wire on a lamp post in a playground at Taman Baru Tiga in neighbouring Shah Alam.

Khairil, who works as a coordinator at a civil society organisation, felt that not enough had been done to prevent similar tragedies. So he drove around his neighbourhood to look for other lamp posts with exposed wiring.

He found more than 40. Armed with photos and GPS coordinates of each one, he submitted the data to his elected representative and council. Realising the extent of the problem, the council finally swung into action to fix the lamp posts.

“The problem is that when you complain to your local council about exposed wiring, the people at the council record your complaint and keep the data to themselves. No one else knows how big the problem is,” he says.

The incident shows that greater transparency and openness when it comes to data allows problems to be identified earlier. It’s one reason why it is important for government bodies such as the local council to make their data fully and freely available to the public.

Governments regularly release data, but often much of what’s available to the public is either incomplete or heavily summarised, making it hard to do a meaningful analysis.

What a growing global movement wants is for governments to implement the concept of Open Data, meaning that data should be easily and freely accessible so that anyone can use, modify and share it for any purpose.

Data here refers to the huge amounts of information that bodies ranging from local councils to minis­tries collect and keep. It can be as simple as information on broken lamp posts in a district to detailed government budgets and expenditure.

Data must meet certain conditions to be considered as open. It has to be free and available online. It needs to be open-licenced, so that anyone has permission to use and re-use the data. The data has to be machine-readable, meaning it can be read and analysed using commonly used software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Excel.

“Opening up data sets promotes good governance and transparency, but there is still so much out there that’s still not disclosed,” says Michael Canares, Regional Research Manager for Asia at Open Data Labs, which promotes the social, political and economic benefits of open data.

Open Data Labs is a project of the World Wide Web Foundation that was set up by the creator of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, to improve openness and access to the Web.

There are exceptions to what types of data should be public. A person’s credit card data or a company’s proprietary information are among the types of data that need to be protected. Other than that, there is much non-sensitive public information that governments can and should make available.

Around the world are many examples of open data being put to good use by governments and civil society organisations to ease commuting, allow patients access to cheaper medicines and allow citizens to scrutinise their government’s public spending.

When the London Transport Authority released its data, more than 8,500 app developers signed up for access. Some went on to create more than 500 apps that provide more than four million users with information on delays and disruptions on transport services.

In South Africa, the Medicine Price Registry portal in South Africa uses publicly available data to help patients check prices of not just branded medicine but cheaper generics with the same potency.

In Nigeria, a civil society initiative called BudgIT processes complex government data on public spending, then puts it up online in easily understood terms to help every level of society scrutinise how their taxes are actually being spent.

“When the public can easily access data, they are able to keep the government in check,” says Tricia Yeoh, chief operating officer at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).

Businesses also benefit. Research done by the Open Data Institute found 270 companies in the United Kingdom that use, produce, or invest in open data.

These companies have an annual turnover of over £92bil (RM421bil) and hire more than 500,000 employees.

Where does Malaysia fit into this picture?

Malaysia is 51st in the list of 92 countries ranked under the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer. The ranking which studies a country’s openness in terms of its data, places the United Kingdom, United States and France in the top three spots.

What the proponents of Open Data want is for governments to sign up for the Open Government Partnership (OGP). It is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, and fight corruption.

To become a member, a country must endorse an Open Government Declaration, deliver a country action plan and commit to independent reporting on their progress going forward.

The OGP was set up in 2011 with eight countries: Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States. It now has 70 participating countries.

Malaysia currently does not qualify to join the OGP as the country has no federal freedom of information and asset declaration laws.

Despite the setback, Malaysia actually already has an Open Data agenda in place. Driven by the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDEC) and the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (Mampu), the initiative led to the setting up of Malaysia’s official Open Data portal,

The web portal offers the public a growing list of data sets from Government agencies and ministries including the number of preschool classes per district, weather reports, bus schedules and dengue hotspots, among others.

It allows anyone to use this data to innovate and create new solutions to benefit the people or spur the economy, which is why it makes good sense for the federal and state governments to continue pushing for open data.

“For governments, the main benefit of embracing Open Data is that it can help bridge the trust gap between them and citizens.

“It shows the government does not have anything to hide in terms of public service delivery and can convince the people that they’re doing the right thing,” says Yeoh.

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