This blog is part of the event report series on International Open Data Day 2017. On Saturday 4 March, groups from around the world organised over 300 events to celebrate, promote and spread the use of open data. 44 events received additional support through the Open Knowledge International mini-grants scheme, funded by SPARC, the Open Contracting Program of Hivos, Article 19, Hewlett Foundation and the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office. This event was supported through the mini-grants scheme under the Environment theme.

Upon realising the need for open data outreach and promotion within Laos, the East-West Management Institute’s Open Development Initiative (EWMI-ODI) collaborated with the Faculty of Forestry Science, National University of Laos to host a workshop on ‘open data for research’on Open Data Day 2017, as part of a process to build a community of open data enthusiasts among students, researchers, professors, and civil society professionals. Read more on how it all begun in Laos, the current nature of open data in the country and how EWMI-ODI spearheaded the 2017 open data celebration.

Some Background Information

In December 2007, a group of communication specialists working in the fields of agriculture and natural resource management convened a workshop to share experiences and craft a declaration called the Dongdok Statement on Access to Information for Development (Dongdok SAID). Some of the key areas of the statement focused on a commitment to sharing resources, information and promoting open access and open source systems. This marked the first time that individuals and organisations committed themselves to sharing resources openly and in an informal manner.

From this meeting a number of initiatives have evolved, most notably the Coalition for Lao Information Communication and Knowledge (CLICK), LaosFAB, Lao 44, and The Rights-LINK program (managed by Village Focus International). In addition, a number of initiatives that were just emerging at that time have become full-time services, including the LaosLink discussion group and the Lao Agriculture Database (LAD).

In 2009, the Lao DECIDE info platform was established as a data sharing platform of the Government of the Laos PDR to facilitate informed planning and decision-making by making key information from social, economic, environmental and agricultural sectors accessible . The initiative was a collaboration between the Governments of the Laos PDR and Switzerland. The platform was implemented with technical support from the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) of the University of Bern, Switzerland, in partnership with participating institutions, and receives financial support from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). This platform is accessible to registered users who are granted different levels of access and use permissions.

Many of these platforms are having an impact on national development by improving the capability of people working for donor agencies, research institutes and NGOs who have access to the platform. However, many of these data and resource repositories remain closed, if measured by the Open Definition. Although a majority of them are hosting public domain resources, they do not currently employ a structured archive to comply with international standard nor do they openly license their content. These make ingestion of these data and resources for publication on open data portals technically and legally challenging.

Open Data in Laos

Open Knowledge’s Global Open Data Index has not been able to rate Laos in their surveys due to the lack of ‘data availability online and in open format’. Similarly, the Open Data Barometer has not been able to rank Laos on the global map.

In 2016, the Open Data Inventory (ODIN), a rating that assesses the coverage and openness of official statistics, ranked Laos 141 out of 173 (with an overall score of 26%, 25% for coverage and 27% for openness). This reflects an improvement from 2015 (overall score of 21%, 34% for coverage and 8% for openness).

The country currently does not have Right to Information Law and has not signed on to be a member of the Open Government Partnership.

Fostering sustainable development with open data

The East-West Management Institute (EWMI) is rolling out a pioneering project, Open Development Initiative (ODI), an innovative online platform aggregating and sharing data to shed light on development trends in the Lower Mekong countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. It consists of a single unified open-source database supporting six websites, for each of the five Lower Mekong countries, and a regional site – Open Development Mekong (OD Mekong). This regional effort was built upon the flagship site of the Open Development Cambodia (ODC) initiative, which was launched in 2011 and has since been relied on by tens of thousands for objective and compelling data visualisations that illuminate the development and environmental challenges in Cambodia.

The Information and Library Division of the Faculty of Forestry Science, National University of Laos.

As part of the ODI’s expansion throughout the Mekong region, EWMI-ODI seek national and international partners to contribute to building a data and information ecosystem to support transparent sharing of development data and informed decisions on sustainable development in Laos. In sync with a partnership building effort, the project hosts outreach events in the different Lower Mekong countries to promote the platform and the benefits of objective cross-sectoral open data approach for sustainable development.

Realizing the need for open data outreach and promotions within Laos, in coordination with the International Open Data Day and in collaboration with the Faculty of Forestry Science, National University of Laos, EWMI-ODI hosted a workshop on ‘open data for research’ as part of a process to build a community of open data enthusiasts among students, researchers, professors, and civil society professionals. The workshop was attended by 17 participants including research division director of the faculty, professors, graduate students, members of civil society organisations working on information sharing, media, and data officers from private sector companies.

EWMI-ODI Laos Research Fellow Lamphay Inthakoun facilitating discussion in Lao language

When asked to identify challenges related to finding and using public data and information for research and planning, participants who consider themselves data users emphasised the following:

  • Data quality and differentiation between quality within government ministries and non-governmental institutions
  • Availability and accessibility of development data and information in Laos language also remain a challenge. Note that there are over 80 donor agencies and international non-governmental organisations working in Laos, but most of their materials and reports are in English and not available on their websites. As a result, people have a hard time accessing development-related information.
  • The supply of data does not meet the needs
  • If available, data is not in reusable formats, which requires resources for conversion
  • Limited data and published research in the Lao language  
  • Access to data is limited and the process for requesting permission to use government data can take a long time to get approved
  • Limited usability of data both from technical and legal perspectives

When asked to identify challenges related to opening up data, participants who consider themselves data providers raised the following questions:

  • Responsible data and the ethics related to releasing data: what data to open and for whom it should be open? 
  • Licensing issues: how to identify which data to use and evaluate the appropriateness of using open licensing?
  • How should the data be opened: should cloud applications be used or in-house servers maintained?

Following this discussion was a presentation of open data principles and use cases from notable open data initiatives in the region, highlighting how they have created positive development impacts through open data. Using open data principle and open licensing guideline, this presentation demonstrated how participants may find, assess usability, and contribute to existing data and information resources on the various platform. Discussion continued to answer the question of how open data can advance higher education research.

EWMI-ODI looks forward to collaborating with the international open data community to help guide discussion around responsible data sharing and best practices for opening up public data for development in the region. As a continuing effort to establish a local platform for Laos as part of the Open Development Mekong platform, we will be coordinating a series of meetings to open up discussions on how we can build effective data sharing partnerships with various stakeholders and offer some technical support for the use of this facility.

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Pinkie is an open data advocate and practitioner. She is currently supporting East West Management Institute' Open Development Initiative (EWMI-ODI) in building coalitions and offering a constantly evolving open data and information platform to track development trends in the Lower Mekong region from country to regional level. Before joining EWMI-ODI, Pinkie worked with Open Development Cambodia, a flagship project of the initiative. Pinkie is also interested in civic tech, open education, design thinking, and arts.