Open Nepal is a network, supported by Development Initiatives, to promote more effective development through the increased sharing and use of data.
Over the past few months, workshops and events have taken place around the theme of opening up government data. Various government agencies have released datasets through online platforms, allowing Nepalese civil society to undertake a number of assessments on the openness of such data.
But there remains a gap between the availability of open government data and its positive impact on development. Even in countries ahead of the curve, such initiatives have at times failed to provide value. There has not, for example, always been a strong enough buy-in from government, a broad enough range of civil society stakeholders in their development, or sufficient attention paid to the needs and interests of data users. So what do people in Nepal think now about the potential for open government data?
Recommendations from those inside government
By Joshua Leslie
“Policy [on open government data] must be focused on development outcomes rather than only supply side outcomes for meaningful change to occur” – Nepali Government Civil Servant at the Second United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal
Over the past few years, the idea of sharing government data in an accessible, machine-readable format as open government data has gained traction among both civil society and government. Particular progress has been seen in recent months, with a number of events channeling discussion and innovation on the topic. From our conversation with various government representatives at these events, we have gathered key messages on open government data becoming a reality in Nepal.
- The concept of open government data must be adapted to the Nepali context
Nepal has its own unique culture and longstanding set of norms, and government officials expressed a concern that sometimes new concepts from external actors could be seen to challenge this. When it comes to increased sharing of government information, such as finance and performance data, officials explained that changing the culture within government to support this could be slow. For the concept of open government data to be a success in Nepal, the officials explained that it needs to be seen by the masses as fitting within the country’s culture rather than challenging it. As such, steps need to be taken to ensure that the sharing of government data is understood within the cultural context and communicated in a way that people can relate to.
- Open government data will not happen if Nepal’s elders are excluded from the conversation
The demand for open government data demonstrated by the youth of Nepal was welcomed by government officials; however, it was expressed that, unless there is support from the elders in positions of power, open government data will not become a reality in Nepal. To ensure the supply of data into the hands of tomorrow’s change-makers, there needs to be encouragement and knowledge-sharing with the older generation. Synergy between the two groups has to be incubated to ensure the success of open government data.
- A legal framework to backstop open government data can support its success
“In my opinion, to make open government data a success in Nepal the National Planning Commission has to enlarge the legal policy on open data” – Krishna Hari Baskota, Chief Information Commissioner at the National Information Commission
Government officials stated that incorporating concepts of open government data within a legal framework could help lay the foundation for its success in Nepal. One potential way of achieving this would be by amending the Right to Information Act, 2007, to include provisions around the proactive release of such a resource. Officials felt that open government data and RTI have fundamentally similar goals in that they both aim to improve access to information for citizens. Thus, through amendments to the RTI Act, open government data principles could be expeditiously implemented into Nepal’s legal framework.
- Champions working on open government data must be encouraged and supported
To facilitate the realisation of open government data’s many potential benefits, government officials supported the idea of identifying champions to promote the concept – both inside and outside of the government bureaucracy. They felt that champions are important in helping set the agenda and teaching those that do not understand the importance of open government data. Highlighting the good work done by individuals or institutions will help ensure that the relevance and intent of this resource is properly demonstrated.
- Better information management is necessary if government data is to be shared
There appeared to be a high level of buy-in from government officials regarding the use of modern technical systems to enable management and sharing of government data. It was felt that, unless there was adequate technical and human infrastructure, open data would not be achieved regardless of the legal framework created. Government officials expressed that an open data portal and information management system would have to be created if government data is to be proactively disclosed in an open format.
- Demonstrating use of government data within government will be needed to encourage use by others
“Examples of successful data use in Nepal have to be demonstrated, so that people know what data the government should provide and can request it” – Krishna Hari Baskota, Chief Information Commissioner at the National Information Commission
The officials were clear that, unless open government data is supported and used within government, its desired effects will be inconsequential. If better and more open data is a key tenet of sustainable development, then those who are in a position to influence policy must understand the benefits of using data, advocate for it to be opened and show that they are using it. In addition, officials called for civil society to support government by demonstrating the use of open government data.
- Civil society must be equipped with the intentions and skills to use government data
“The elephant came through, but its tail got stuck” – Nepali proverb
Proper technological capabilities and technical skills were deemed necessary by government officials to make open government data useful to civil society. To ensure civil society gains the skills to re-use data, its current capability of analysing and using data has to be properly understood.
These seven messages from government officials are important for those outside of government looking to promote the concept and progression of open government data in Nepal. Bringing government priorities together with civil society priorities on this agenda will help inform the steps taken towards making open government data a reality in Nepal.
Recommendations from those outside government
By Pavitra Rana
“We need more data sharing from government, but if this is to lead to change in Nepal we need to make sure the data released responds to the needs of citizens, and that we are well positioned to know how to use it” – A civil society organisation (CSO) representative at a recent workshop with the National Information Commission in Kathmandu
Although still a relatively new idea in Nepal, the concept of open government data and its potential to be shared in an accessible, machine-readable format to deliver change is receiving increasing interest in civil society. At a series of recent events in Kathmandu, we spoke with a wide range of representatives from civil society groups to better understand their concerns, motivations and suggestions for the future of open government data. The following presents seven key messages from civil society:
- The sharing of open government data must respond to the information needs of the user
“If open government data is meant to help us to better plan, monitor and engage with government, then it needs to be the right data to allow this” – a CSO Representative
A number of civil society representatives were aware of experiences in other countries, where the content of data releases by government had not necessarily met needs. Representatives understood the importance of avoiding top-down releases of data that were irrelevant to those who might want to use open government data. To ensure data is useful, it is crucial to first understand who the users are, what they are trying to achieve, how data could be beneficial to them, and, therefore, what data is needed. There is a clear message from civil society that users need to be involved with all efforts to create open government data in Nepal.
- For open government data to lead to change in Nepal its capacity for use needs to be built
“Open government data will not bring improvements in how development is done today in Nepal unless it is used” – Ambika Osti, NaliBeli
Developing skills and capacity of the users to access, use and analyse open government data was deemed essential by civil society representatives. Especially, for it to be valuable in building new and innovative solutions for effective development in Nepal. They are positive that efforts to improve the skills of intermediaries, such as themselves and journalists, to translate data into information would be helpful. However, data literacy in Nepal is still considered to be low and more government support to strengthen efforts to increase this is needed.
- The roadmap for open government data must be Nepali-led
“The agenda needs to be owned by us and we need to make open government data what it needs to be for our own unique country context” – Nikesh Balami, Open Knowledge Nepal
To successfully implement open government data in Nepal, civil society representatives believe endorsement of its concept by the national government is critical. Once the government ‘owns’ this concept, it must engage local civil society throughout the process of implementation.
- Nepal must learn from others’ experiences of open government data as well as share its own lessons
“Learning from the experiences of other countries helps us understand what works and what doesn’t in a particular scenario” – Arun Karki, Centre for Data Journalism Nepal
To assess both favourable and unfavourable conditions for open government data, civil society representatives regarded lessons from others’ experiences as a great tool. Learning from international best practices and local experiences in Nepali civil society was seen as vital to ensuring the nation builds on existing efforts rather than starting from scratch. Open government data activities in Nepal have been taking place in various disguises – through, for example, public finance management, local governance and local budgeting – which could be taken to the next level by learning from other innovative open government data models worldwide. It was also felt important that we share our learning to support others.
- For open government data to be of benefit to Nepal it must be inclusive
Civil society representatives expressed that efforts to promote open government data needed to include all agencies within government. Furthermore, they highlighted that issues across different sectors – such as education, health, water, natural resources and energy – must be addressed to build shared solutions. For open government data to be an effective tool for development, it should address everyone’s needs irrespective of geography and demography. Indeed, it needs to be accessible to all parts of the country, not just Kathmandu, and all communities, not just the elite.
- The data shared must be relevant to our national goals
“One size does not fit all! Open government data needs to be tailored to the Nepalese context” – Adarsha Tuladhar, GOGO Foundation
For successful persuasion of open government data, civil society representatives articulated its need to be tied to Nepal’s national goals and priorities; for example, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 or graduating from the status of Least Development Country by 2020. They suggested that it could be a strong incentive for government to fully endorse the open government data agenda.
- Efforts to encourage open government data must complement, not substitute, other initiatives
“Open government data must not be seen as competition to already established open initiatives, and therefore we need to take careful steps forward” – Tanka Aryal, Citizen Campaign for Rights to Information
Caution was recommended while heading towards use of open government data. It must be considered as complementing the already existing initiatives, such as Right to Information (RTI) rather than as a substitute. For instance, releasing data on RTI requests in open format could help improve its access and use by a wider group of people for decision-making. It was felt that if open government data was seen as competition we may lose out on the benefits that could be achieved from combining the two.
Recent discussions in Nepal, many of which have been co-hosted by government, have sparked a powerful conversation on the open government data issues outlined here. While this is, in itself, a significant milestone, there are still many more to achieve in Nepal’s path towards open development. The conversation has begun; let it continue!
Homepage photo courtesy The Platform Inc.