10 things we learnt from Nepal’s first government panel debate on open data
Open Data Day has been going in Nepal for the past four years, but this year a new dimension was included – a policy dialogue on open data with officials from Nepal’s government agencies.
Open Data Day 2016 attendees were given insight into open data issues through the lens of Nepal’s most influential data supplier – our government. The panel included the Central Bureau of Statistics, National Planning Commission, National Information Commission, National Reconstruction Authority, Nepal Telecommunications Authority, and the Public Procurement Monitoring Office.
The event created a welcome platform for data users to engage with data suppliers and learn about the government’s readiness for better data sharing, use, reuse and redistribution.
10 things we learnt from the panel discussion
- There is a lot of support in government for open data. Krishna Hari Banskota, Chief Information Commissioner of the National Information Commission (NIC), highlighted their efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of open government data within the bureaucracy of Nepal. He told us that “NIC is sharing news about the home-grown open data initiatives, as well as sharing information on how governments all around the world have adopted openness in their work through learning from the international forums – such as the Open Government Partnership Global Summit that we had the privilege of attending in October 2015″. The government has so far taken some modest steps to achieve data openness.
- The government is committed to improving data quality and standards. Plans by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) to enact a national strategy for the development of statistics will help streamline our national statistical system to improve data quality and standards. This could also help make government data more open to the public. At the onset of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), this move of CBS is particularly important in helping ensure Nepal has the data competency to measure indicators for SDG monitoring and to aid government planning and decision-making.
- Nepal now has open data included in government policy. Ananda Raj Khanal, Director of the Nepal Telecommunication Authority, announced that open data will feature in section 12.5.2 of the new draft ICT policy. If passed this policy may help guide how government can improve sharing of data/information using multiple channels and technologies to make it more open, accessible and useable to people. Suman Raj Aryal, Director General of the CBS, noted that efforts to make public data/information open have existed for several years in processes such as Nepal’s Right to Information Act. But policies and rules will only work if they are implemented well, so there will need to be a lot of effort from both the demand and supply sides to translate these policies into action.
- The government’s commitment to open data is soon to be demonstrated in their planning processes. Discussion revealed that the National Planning Commission (NPC) plans to open up to the public all the data used for the 14th periodic plan, which is due for release this June/July. If this happens, it could be a major step forward for Nepal in helping increase public participation in the planning process. The community needs to realise the potential of such data to shape their society and thus hold government to account.
- Data from across government ministries will soon be more available.The CBS shared its plans to host data from all ministries on its website soon. For a national statistical body that is also considered the steward of Nepal’s data, this is a huge opportunity to build its profile as a government institution taking a lead in embracing open government to facilitate improved access to public data.
- Some agencies think we have a long way to go. Reasons given included the lack of appropriate technological infrastructure and insufficient skills in the government agencies to open up, share and use data. The CBS and NPC also suggested that important preparatory efforts are needed from the government. These include setting up proper data standards to enable data from one source to be joined up with another and defining limits to data openness to ensure that personal data are kept private.
- The government acknowledges that “there is a deep-rooted culture of hoarding data and information in Nepal”. The speakers from the NIC, CBS and NPC acknowledged that there is not always buy-in to the idea that it is necessary to share information with the public, and this poses a challenge in promoting openness. One speaker suggested that having a specific open data policy in place would help build the practice of proactive sharing and dissemination of public data in open data format, bridging the gap between data supply and demand.
- The government feels it is yet to see strong demand for its data. Krishna Hari Banskota of the NIC underscored the need to stimulate demand for data to improve its supply and called for a louder voice from civil society. “Government and citizens as equal partners in development should share equal responsibility in making Nepal’s open data movement a success. In order to improve government’s efficiency in providing data and information, citizens need to actively seek data and information from the government”.
- The government strongly recognises the need for responsible handling of data, especially ethnicity data. The CBS gave a word of caution on handling data on Nepal’s ethnicities. “It is likely to pose a challenge if opened up as it could potentially make society prone to various kinds of disputes that are detrimental to the health of our politics, economy and eventually our development as a nation” advised Suman Raj Aryal of CBS. It will be interesting to see which direction the government will take as elsewhere it is recognised that data on ethnicity is vital in understanding access to resources and ensuring that sustainable development efforts ‘leave no one behind’.
On opportunity for civil society
- There is great opportunity for civil society to support government agencies to embrace open data. There are a number of agencies that have not yet planned for data and information transparency. For example, Nepal’s newest government agency, Nepal Reconstruction Authority (NRA), has not yet considered making earthquake funds transparent – besides publishing information on the compensation and concessional loan amount for rebuilding houses. While the NRA has not yet firmed up its plans for data sharing, there’s a great need and opportunity for the community to engage with it to express their demand and support.
Open Data Day allowed the data community in Nepal to witness a huge leap in the progress of open data on the government agenda. Having government officials on-board to share their perspectives on broad aspects of open data in the context of their own work and institutions has shifted the discourse from one of civil society to one that is embraced by government. There is still much more to be done, we’ve a long road ahead of us – particularly in moving the conversation on from supply of open data to demonstrations of its actual use to improve Nepal’s development. For all the challenges, there are many opportunities, and lots of reasons to feel excited about the future of open data in Nepal.
Next year when we convene again on Open Data Day 2017, we look forward to seeing the progress on these plans and promises coming to fruition.
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