This blog post was written by Riyadh Al Balushi from the Sultanate of Oman.
I recently co-authored with Sadeek Hasna a report that looks at the status of open data in the Arab World and the extent to which governments succeed or fail in making their data available to the public in a useful manner. We decided to use the results of the Global Open Data Index as the starting point of our research because the Index covered all the datasets that we chose to examine for almost all Arab countries. Choosing to use the Global Open Data Index as a basis for our paper saved us time and provided us with a systematic framework for evaluating how Arab countries are doing in the field of open data.
We chose to examine only four datasets, namely: the annual budget, legislation, election results, and company registration data. Our selection was driven by the fact that most Arab countries already have published data in this area and therefore there is content to look at and evaluate. Furthermore, most of the laws of the countries we examined make it a legal obligation on the government to release these datasets and therefore it was more likely for the government to make an effort to make this data public.
Our analysis uncovered that there are many good examples of government attempts at releasing data in an open manner in the Arab World. Examples include the website of Ministry of Finance of the UAE which releases the annual budget in Excel format, the legislation website of Qatar which publishes the laws in text format and explicitly adopts a Creative Commons license to the website, the Elections Committee website of Egypt, which releases the elections data in Excel format, and the website of the Company Register of Bahrain, which does not make the data directly available for download, but provides a very useful search engine to find all sorts of information about companies in Bahrain. We also found several civil society projects and business initiatives that take advantage of government data such as Mwazna – a civil society project that uses the data of the annual budget in Egypt to communicate to the public the financial standing of the government in a visual way, and Al Mohammed Network – a business based on the legislation data in the Arab World.
What was interesting is that even though many Arab countries now have national open data initiatives and dedicated open data portals, all the successful open data examples in the Arab World are not part of the national data portals and are operated independently by the departments responsible for creating the data in question. While the establishment of these open data portals is a great sign of the growing interest in open data by Arab governments, in many circumstances these portals appear to be of a very limited benefit, primarily because the data is usually out of date and incomplete. For example, the Omani open data portal provides population data up to the year 2007, while Saudi’s open data portal provides demographic data up to the year 2012. In some cases, the data is not properly labeled, and it is impossible for the user to figure out when the data was collected or published. An example of this would be the dataset for statistics of disabilities in the population on the Egyptian government open data page. The majority of the websites seem to be created through a one-off initiative that was never later updated, probably in response to the global trend of improving e-government services. The websites are also very hard to navigate and are not user-friendly.
Another problem we noticed, which applies to the majority of government websites in the Arab World, is that very few of these websites license their data using an open license and instead they almost always explicitly declare that they retain the copyright over their data. In many circumstances, this might not be in line with the position of domestic copyright laws that exempt official documents, such as the annual budget and legislation, from copyright protection. Such practices confuse members of the public and give the impression to many that they are not allowed to copy the data or use it without the permission of the government, even when that is not true. Another big challenge for utilising government data is that many Arab government websites upload their documents as scanned PDF files that cannot be read or processed by computer software. For example, it is very common for the annual budget to be uploaded as a scanned PDF file when instead it would be more useful to the end user if it was uploaded in a machine-readable format such as Excel or CSV. Such formats can easily be used by journalists and researchers to analyse the data in more sophisticated ways and enables them to create charts that help present the data in a more meaningful manner. Finally, none of the datasets examined above were available for download in bulk, and each document had to be downloaded individually. While this may be acceptable for typical users, those who need to do a comprehensive analysis of the data over an extensive period of time will not be able to do efficiently so. For example, if a user wants to analyse the change in the annual budget over a period of 20 years, he or she would have to download 20 individual files. A real open data portal should enable the user to download the whole data in bulk. In conclusion, even though many governments in the Arab World have made initiatives to release and open their data to the public, for these initiatives to have a meaningful impact on government efficiency, business opportunities, and civil society participation, the core principles of open data must be followed.
There is an improvement in the amount of data that governments in the Arab World release to the public, but more work needs to be done. For a detailed overview of the status of open data in the Arab World, you can read our report in full here.