OD Asia Phase I

In late 2018, Open Data for Development (OD4D): Asia hub was launched to improve availability and impact of open data in Southeast Asia through research and strategic coordination of existing as well as new regional collaboration initiatives. The hub aims to build a stronger community of practice in Southeast Asia consisting of open data technologists, civil society, government officials, donors, and researchers.
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Through collaboration between OD4D, Open Development Mekong and partners in Malaysia and India, a community of open data advocates are increasing the quality, impact, and sustainability of individual initiatives and collaboration in the region, establishing links with regional and global networks, building on the vision outlined in the Open Data in Asia 2020 report.

We have collectively decided to prioritize our engagement with open data initiatives in the following sectors:

  • Open budget and legislative
  • Indigenous Data Sovereignty
  • Open data and gender inclusiveness in Southeast Asia

Additional preliminary research for the Infrastructure Procurement sector, building on some of the outcomes of these initiatives, has led to the start of a cross-regional project for investigating infrastructure procurement between Malaysia (Sinar Project) and Kenya (Nation Media).

Parliaments and legislative bodies are an inclusive and established multi-stakeholder mechanism for access to information and data needed for good governance by elected representatives, government, civil society organizations, journalists and public. Open Budget and Legislative Data builds upon past successful partnerships between Sinar Project (Malaysia) and Open Hluttaw (Myanmar) in making open legislative data available in constrained environments, while enabling local and regional collaborations and innovations through use of open data standards. 

Sinar Project has shown that making parliamentary replies available, in an easy to search format, provides both parliamentarians and citizens access to concise information and data of public interest. Similarly, in Myanmar, The Ananda through Myanmar Budgets Dashboard publishes informational articles on parliamentary bills and associated discussions have made important parliamentary work more accessible. The Ananda has now successfully made transcript data available as open data following Akoma Ntoso data standard, built a website and held workshops to parliamentarians and civil society on how these innovations can help support their work.

Collaboration has also exposed shared challenges in the region around making legislative data available. Parliamentary capacity building initiatives must address digital service reforms and open data literacy in order for legislative open data to be continuously and sustainably published. More research is also needed for open source libraries to support Natural Language Processing (NLP) for machine learning for languages in Southeast Asia in order to automatically extract open data from government documents or for automated analysis such as identifying topics discussed in parliament.

Indigenous Data Sovereignty can help strengthen communities over time by recording their indigenous knowledge. Engagement of indigenous groups across the Mekong and Asia has been challenging. There are large gaps in capacity and resources, and disconnection due to geographic dispersion of groups. EWMI-ODI has coordinated an indigenous working group among Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam stakeholders to look at the inequalities of data availability on indigenous issues, particularly for women. This linked to partnerships for monitoring progress against SDGs and provides a long-term strategy for continued relevance. ODM now also partners with Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) to collaborate on Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) work across the region as well as chairing the Access Now network on Indigenous Peoples to increase participation and representation of indigenous peoples.  IDS principles and the new Be FAIR and CARE principles released by the Global Indigenous Data Alliance have been disseminated to these groups. Engagement at regional and global levels, has also raised awareness of these issues as well as unique applications of indigenous data within the Open Data movement.

To address some of the gaps in capacity, EWMI-ODI has conducted digital literacy training for communities in Laos and developed  low-literate handheld data collection tools. To address gaps in IDS data, 107 datasets have been translated and published on Open Data Laos platform.

Indigeneity is still not recognised within the Mekong and indigenous and ethnic minority (IEM) groups still face the threats of persecution and discrimination. Datasets published are inaccessible due to language and digital literacy. It will take time, but engagement and awareness raising through cultural documentation in video and other media formats are starting points to address this issue.

The Open Development Mekong team conducted scoping studies across the Mekong to look at engagement of Women in Open Data in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.  Research found that digital divide persists and hinders women’s access and use of technology across thematic sectors and demographics thus hindering their access to data and information. Intersectional components of gender i.e. ethnicity, economic circumstances, geography and education continue to play a large role in inequality of access to information and data. Literacy, especially verbal, written and digital are also barriers to participation.

Research recommendations in bridging gender gaps include but are not limited to targeted training and support for technical and data literacy for women only; focusing on youth - the largest demographic; and creating a role model program that highlights successful women in STEM fields and incentivises a mentorship program to offer one-on-one support along with regular meet-ups to provide guidance and support to women. 

The initial findings and recommendations to address open data gender gaps could be improved upon through piloting initiatives to determine the most effective approaches  towards strengthening women's engagement in the open data and technology sectors.

The establishment of the OD4D Asia regional hub has provided an enabling environment for increased collaboration and partnerships at national and regional levels, along with cross-sectoral partnerships. It has started to address issues of disconnectedness in Asian open data initiatives by connecting East Asian countries through AODP and Southeast Asian countries through Open Development Mekong and Sinar Project.  It has also increased Asian representation and inputs at global events from technical innovations in constrained environments, especially on issues related to indigenous rights and open data enablers for collaborations between countries with different cultures, language, economic and technical development.

Yet the region still faces a variety of difficult challenges moving forward, and the outputs and outcomes in this report only provide a snapshot of the open data initiatives in the region. Many are not captured as yet due to the diversity of languages spoken in this region. The open data initiatives in this project are CSO driven with limited resources and questions on sustainability.


Challenges with Obtaining Digital Information:

All partner organizations face challenges in obtaining digital information due to technical and political constraints. Open Development Mekong and its national partners are leaders in digitizing and storing datasets and documents in its CKAN datahub, and should be supported to continue to bring on new data partners and digitize and make documents available to the public through its open data platform.  Additional support and infrastructure for partners on digitizing documents and archiving would be very beneficial. Due to the importance of civil society contributed data, funding and sustainable models for CSO data infrastructure needs to be looked at further.

Partner capacity gaps:

The EWMI-ODI team has needed to remain highly agile in supporting country-portal partners during the implementation of this project. Each partner has different inherent strengths and capacity deficits, a circumstance that evolved with each new hire, and the nature of the proposed knowledge and research products being developed. Country partners require considerable practical support with data processing and analysis, and considerable editorial support in preparing their material for publication. The net result of these dynamics is that the EWMI-ODI team expanded considerably more time than anticipated supporting partners producing final deliverables, and would often need to reallocate resources and shift strategy to provide more concrete support in areas that country partners were not focusing on. 

Moving forward, we plan to address these challenges by enhancing capacity in the following areas:

  • Partner coordination support
  • Research management and support
  • Translation services
  • Data literacy, analysis and visualization
  • Seminars, workshops for peer review
  • Monitoring and evaluation

Bridging the Digital Divide: 

Digital literacy is critical and a prerequisite for effective implementation of any of the OD4D AsiaHub initiatives. This is particularly the case for the development of informatics tools and databases that offer services online such as OpenHluttaw and the OD Mekong platforms. Increasingly, however, as we expand our programming, we are finding that digital divides are still fairly wide within Asia, predominantly along urban / rural lines.  

One reason is the general gap in infrastructural development.  Access and connectivity issues persist in rural areas due to the fact that investments are usually geared towards smart city infrastructure and largely populated urban areas. Remote, isolated areas are fairly underserved and resources are often over exploited at the detriment of these communities in favour of larger scale investments that serve resource hungry urban cities. 

Another reason for the divide is digital jargon. Terminology used within the sector can also be a barrier for communities where transliterations don’t usually exist and use of English words can be ineffectual. Compounding this issue is the diversity of language spoken throughout the region - many not supported by scripts that have been digitized. Introducing the concepts of open data within this context requires alternative approaches to defining the work without losing meaning and function. 

It also must be acknowledged that the traditional constrained environments of Asia are founded upon cultural patricharcal systems which hinder openness and free thought. This perpetuates an institutional, closed culture to the detriment of equitable progress and innovation. Governments are increasing legitimizing approaches via legislation that ambiguously constrain and restrict individual freedoms through national security provisions. This has been an ongoing challenge during implementation of the indigenous data sovereignty initiative at various levels and has hindered implementation. 

Women and ethnic minorities continue to be disenfranchised by digital divides and left behind when it comes to the opportunities that could be created to promote inclusiveness. The research conducted revealed systemic and persistent issues which arguably have not shifted regardless of progress made in some circumstances. This could be a generational challenge as we continue to fight for equality and rights for women and ethnic minorities. 

Building partnerships in non data/tech organisations: 

Traditional civil society working in governance and human rights as well as traditional research institutions find it not only hard to shift their approaches, the concepts of accountability using open data are foreign. This has meant that finding partners and  constituency building to strengthen the use of open data in evidence advocacy requires good case study examples of success to attain buy-in for these approaches. Yet there are few and far-between examples that exist in Asia that could significantly influence a shift yet. Perpetuation of extractive approaches to research and information collection processes reinforces the traditional programming and divests communities, particularly indigenous and ethnic people of their rights over their own development. We have seen this within global implementation of Sustainable Development Goals programming.  

This hinders buy in to build data products and services as it is important to have constituents that can absorb and use products and services.