Exploring the context for open data in Nepal

Claiming the potential to improve transparency, accountability, citizen participation and economic activity, open data is believed to hold great promise. Yet, despite these alleged impacts, there has until very recently been a lack of in-depth research to challenge or confirm whether and how open data initiatives in the developing world could deliver on this promise.

In response to this, through the Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) research programme, we at Development Initiatives have over the past year supported a study by Freedom Forum. The aims of the study were to research the context for open data in Nepal and improve our understanding of what needs to be in place for improved access to information to impact on development efforts.

About the study

The study combined a top-down look at the context of open data in Nepal with a bottom-up view of emerging uses and outcomes from open data. The study explored perceptions and assumptions about open data, gathered evidence of the types of budget and aid information made available, identified the governance and polity of Nepal’s information ecosystem, and examined the extent to which journalists use, and are able to use, this information to impact development outcomes. To read more please download the report Exploring the emerging impacts of open aid data and budget data in Nepal.

The research findings

The study revealed a complex environment of opportunities and challenges for the emergence of open data in Nepal.

On one hand, Nepal has a strong civil society experienced in advocating for transparency and accountability; improving technical capacity with strong technical leaders; and emerging government support for transparency and openness. After more than a decade of civil unrest and governance breakdown, Nepal is now experiencing a period of constitution building. The nascent open data movement has been spurred on by this opportunity, together with government and donor releases of aid data and budget information, as well as by the activities of a group of organisations – of which we are a part – developing the Open Nepal initiative.

On the other hand, Nepal has low levels of internet connectivity; a culture of secrecy within government agencies; and limited evidence of demand for open data beyond the educated urban elite. Nepal ranks low on many social and economic indicators, and it is unknown how open data could play out in an environment with limited financial resources for data infrastructure and sharing, and with high levels of social inequality. Whilst open data in many developed countries has formed from counter-cultural roots, the report identified that strong social hierarchies in Nepal could hinder similar attempts to challenge the mainstream. Whether the concept of openness through data sharing can thrive in an environment of social exclusion is an interesting question for our work in Nepal. The study revealed that whilst some open data exists there is a lack of technical capacity amongst key stakeholders in the information ecosystem to use it, and, consequently, that an impact on development outcomes is unlikely at this point in time.

The research recommendations

It became clear from the activities carried out as part of the study that further research is needed to explore how far concepts of open data need to be adapted in order to be relevant to Nepal. To avoid the risk of open data further empowering the already empowered and increasing the level of inequality and the information divide between groups of Nepali people, the study presents a model to guide future efforts to adapt, adopt and apply open data in Nepal.

Exploring the context for open data in Nepal

Figure: Approach for future action research to adapt, adopt and apply open data in Nepal, from Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Aid and Budget Data, Freedom Forum, August 2014.

Using a symbol traditionally used in Nepal to denote wisdom or knowledge, the model combines a constellation of inter-relating concepts. Recognising that the fundamental goal of access to information is to empower the people of Nepal, the study recommends a closer integration of open data and right to information along with networking, capacity building and a focus on common issues. The model sees dialogue and process as a critical agent in linking this constellation of features.

Through the Open Nepal initiative, we and Nepali partner organisations are working to catalyse the open data ecosystem, increase the awareness, availability, accessibility, and use of information and data in Nepal, and understand what needs to be in place for access to information to lead to an impact on development outcomes. Over the coming months Open Nepal hopes to build on the research undertaken during the study, and see how these recommendations can be applied in practice.