Open Data in the Middle East

Bruce Haupt on in Bits

Glad to be joining the ranks of January Advisors’ Bitsters. I’ll be posting with international and domestic news on open data, process improvement, e-government, startups and innovation.

First topic: Open Data in the Middle East

1. Does open data exist in the Middle East?

Most assuredly it does. A quick gander at the OKFN rankings or the Open Data Barometer research (which is only a sampling – it doesn’t include all programs) shows this. However, in my opinion, both don’t give MENA open data programs a fair shake, although this is likely due to a lack of Middle Eastern and Arabic speaking researchers assessing the region’s programs, as well as less connections and collaborations between those in MENA and OECD countries.

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2. Who’s doing it?

Open data programs have been launched in Bahrain, Israel, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and more (see OKFN and barometer links above). Still, as in the USA and elsewhere internationally, plenty of room for growth in both new and existing national/sub-national initiatives to tap the true potential of open data.

3. What does open data look like in MENA?

Very much like in most new open data programs I’ve seen (whether in the USA or in Asia). More PDFs and Excel and less open and machine readable formats. Less community participation. Less understanding and commitment the further you get from the executive sponsor in government.

Also differences in the type of data released because of differing focuses and forms of government. Accountability and transparency is important, but as we also see in the USA more and more, open data for innovation, growth, and public service improvement is driving the conversation.

4. Why is open data important in the Middle East?

For governments in the MENA region, it’s all about supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. These focuses are critical to establishing sustainable and diversified economies in these natural resource rich countries. More than just strengthening new industries, though, this is also about broadening private participation. The MENA countries I’ve looked at so far (Oman and UAE) both have far more significant employment in government and state owned enterprises and need to grow the share of small and medium sized businesses in their economies.

Public service improvement is important too, but often the governments see themselves as the smart city and app providers which can be problematic for partnerships and innovation. Great article linked down below from the IBM smart city lead on mobile government and open data tied to this topic.

Transparency and accountability is always mentioned too, but less FOIA laws and enforcement make this more difficult by default (which means that implementation of strong open data policies is even more important).

5. Challenges for open data?

The key challenge is one of culture change. Governments are not used to communicating, collaborating and partnering with those on the outside – being a resource and teammate as opposed to a decider and provider. Open data will only truly take off if there is an accompanying Demand side of the equation to work with the Supply side. This requires startup communities, civic technology and Code for X organizations, journalists, planners, and government staff trained in data, and applied STEM educational programs from kindergarten to dissertation.

Government can’t drive this, they can only pave the road and open the lanes of communication. Then… They need to show up. The good news is you’re starting to see some of this happening. Data fellows programs in Egypt. Techstars bringing its accelerator program to Kuwait. Startup Weekends and hackathons all over the place (although the latter are definitely of the mega corporate style).

It’s also worth noting the cultural and language divides between the Middle East and elsewhere, which can lead to reinventing the wheel (tho happens everywhere – not unique here). An example of this is the existence of some less than stellar open data portals that have been launched in MENA, despite the availability of more superior and free / open source options.

6. Want to learn more?

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Bruce Haupt