Open Data in Latin America: Promises, Challenges, and Opportunities

While corruption continues to be pervasive at all layers of society in Latin American countries, the region has become a leader in commitments to open data and open government. A combination of factors has created the appropriate climate among governments, civil society, and private sector, to introduce a series of recommendations, good practices, and strategies that support open data and open government initiatives. Such initiatives have been understood, on the one hand, as a way to support transparency and political accountability. On the other hand, they have been embraced as a way to deliver a public service and support an innovation ecosystem. Although both purposes do not always go well together, they have provided useful frameworks for releasing government information freely, and for encouraging a more active citizenship. Last Monday we had the opportunity of discussing how these initiatives are being deployed and what has been their impact in the region during the symposium Transparencia: Open Data and Anti-Corruption in Latin America.

“Open data is digital data that is made available with the technical and legal characteristics necessary for it to be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone, anytime, anywhere.” (International Open Data Charter)

Promises

Freedom of information and access to it, however, can be sometimes just a promise in the context of unequal societies with weak institutions and strong political elites. Because releasing public data by government officials also means a release of political control, there is a risk that such open data initiatives stay only at the level of a promise and a good intention. Without an appropriate regulation, leadership, and institutional support, open data and open government initiatives cannot be deployed successfully. In order to move the initiatives forward and generate positive open data outcomes such as transparency and innovation, champions of the political space need to collaborate with civil society, business, media, and other governmental institutions.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges of open data initiatives in Latin America is related to the capacity of the societies and communities to engage with the information that is being released. Open data and open government require both supply and demand of data. On the one hand, government needs to release information with the appropriate open standards so the data can be read, and reused in creative and innovative ways. Any data is not good. Releasing information in PDFs, broken Excel sheets, and DataBase dumps are not useful and create lots of obstacles for using the information. Governments need to release data that is inter-operable, and develop the strategies to disclose public information with standards that are open and across multiple channels. If governments release data, that is, a measurement of a system happening in reality, and nobody knows the data is there, it is that data really open?

On the other hand, citizens, the media, and the private sector need to build the appropriate capacity to engage with public data. These actors are the ones that create the demand for public government information. They need the appropriate connectivity and tools for accessing the data and the skills to read, process, and use them in creative ways. Hence, closing digital gaps, at multiple levels, is crucial for supporting open data and open government initiatives.

I found particularly important the need for developing data literacies among citizens and supporting an evidence and fact driven culture in Latin America. Open data and government require citizens and media that are capable of processing data and creating knowledge. This is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of the region and also one that can be tackled not only by education and technology policies, but also by the mass media and the private sector. Becoming a more evidence driven society is beneficial for policy making and the new economy, and can foster a fact checking culture in which civil society and private sectors are not only warrants of transparency but also engines of innovation in public services. Moreover, promoting data literacy can also support the development of innovative storytelling across media platforms and foster a more active participation and civic engagement.

Opportunities

Despite the challenges, a number of open data initiatives in Latin America continues to be quite high. Citizens, journalists, activists, local and national governments, and international organizations have launched open data projects that try to support both political accountability and public service innovation. In an effort to aggregate all the different projects that we discussed and mentioned during the symposium I created a list.

Civil society inititiatives:

Congreso Abierto (Chile): http://congresoabierto.cl/ a project for keeping an eye on congress activity by Ciudadano Inteligente

Data (Uruguay): http://www.datauy.org/ civic tech, tools, participation, community and activism.

SocialTIC (Mexico): http://socialtic.org/ promotes civic tech, community tech, and open data.

Datos El Salvador (El Salvador): http://www.datoselsalvador.org/ open data portal.

ILDA (Regional):http://idatosabiertos.org/ a regional network of open data projects. Promotes research, appropriation, and use of open data.

Abrelatam: http://2015.abrelatam.org/ un-conference de datos abiertos.

Ojo Publico (Peru): http://ojo-publico.com/ojopublico/ investigative journalism project that uses open data. One of its relevant projects: http://cuentasjuradas.ojo-publico.com/

Data Viva: http://en.dataviva.info/ a visualization tool that provides official data on trade, industries, and education throughout Brazil, in eleven visualizations and over 100 million views.

International Organizations:

The Open Contracting Data Standard: http://standard.open-contracting.org/latest/en/ a guide for governments to disclose public data

The Open Data Charter: http://opendatacharter.net/ promotes global adoption of open data principles: Open by Default; Timely and Comprehensive; Accessible and Usable; Comparable and Interoperable; For Improved Governance and Citizen Engagement; For Inclusive Development and Innovation.

Global Open Data Index: http://index.okfn.org a comprehensive snapshot of the global state of open data.

 

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