The data commons: What lies ahead for the Mekong region?

Open data access and sharing in the Mekong is spreading. Open data can increase public participation, aid greater transparency in government, and improve resource governance, city planning or public health monitoring. A number of initiatives, both private sector and civil society, are emerging.  However, a number of obstacles still lie ahead for increased open data sharing in  the Mekong region.

Think if one day, all the people and civil society organizations in the Mekong region, regardless of country and language, are able to share their data with each other. The data is analyzed and used for maps, diagrams and to tell stories about the Mekong region’s communities, and helps in making decisions. That day may not be too far in the future.

The use of data for story-telling is now well-established in the media. Termed also as “data journalism”, journalists are pulling together a varied collection of data from different sources to tell their stories. This is becoming possible because more kinds of data are available and accessible especially in developing countries. However, open accessibility is not always the case in the countries of the Mekong Region, where governments take care to guard data and information from reaching the public.

But it’s getting more and more difficult for governments to prevent open data access and sharing, as illustrated by the growing number of events, workshops and initiatives that are increasingly being held with civil society and private sector as well as media to promote sharing and analysis of data. A case in point is the annual Mekong ICT 2017 held last September in Siem Riep in Cambodia that explained how to use open data and innovation to promote information transparency and cooperation in regional development.

Another similar event held on 19 October at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, Vietnam was the 3rd International Open Educational Resource (OER) Seminar on the theme of copyright and open license. At the meeting, delegates expressed their commitment to cooperate with UNESCO to develop OER in Vietnam based on the recommendations from the seminar participants as well as the Ljubljana Action Plan on OER 2017 adopted in September to support OER.

Conference on implementing open educational resources – copyright and open license held in Hanoi, October 2017. (Photo by 3rd International Open Educational Resource (OER) Seminar Organizer.)

Following this workshop, the 10th International Open Access Week was held in October 23-29 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam where the project team visited universities to raise awareness about OER and open access among government leaders, staff, and students.

This trend in the Mekong region towards open data access and sharing is of course in step with international trends. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is promoting “Digital Citizen; OpenCon20171 is part of a series of annual events on the theme of open data, and held from 11-13 November in Germany to empower the next generation to advance open access, open education and open data.

Value of “crowd and cloud”2

Open data is the data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike (definition from opendefinition.org).

Coming back to the Mekong ICT 2017 in Siem Reap. The event brought together over 120 delegates from the Lower Mekong countries: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. This year’s ICT discussions included the topics of data collaboration, open innovation, information security, digital campaign design, and digital media tools for development work, as well as wireless network design.

Explaining the chosen theme of “collaboration with data” for Mekong ICT 2017, Ms. Puangchomphu Rammuang, Mekong ICT Project Manager, said: “Collaboration should be based on a common understanding. That common understanding should come from facts and data”.

Speed, competence and low cost, these are the features of open data that Ms. Sophia B Liu, PhD from ATLAS Institute, USA, shared in her lecture at Mekong ICT 2017 on open innovation. According to Sophia, open data is transparent, accountable and applicable. Citizen science, crowd sourcing, crowd mapping and civic hacking are effective tools for engaging the public in development projects or activities, she said.

Sharing the same idea as Dr. Sophia, Khairil Yusof, an IT expert from Sinar project, which builds open source tech applications to promote government transparency in Malaysia, showed how open data can be applicable in a range of diverse sectors such as land ownership data, geospatial data (open street maps), key national statistics such as demographic and economic indicators, detailed government budgets and spending figures, company registers, legislation, public transport timetables, health sector performance, education performance, crime statistics, environmental data, national election results, and public contracts.

“With open data, when a person wants to know about a government’s policy, they do not need to listen to politicians but can just look at the budget”, said Khairil in his presentation on how open data built better transparency.

The perspective of the government was provided by the Cambodian representative, Mr. Ouk Kimseng, Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Information of Cambodia: “Establishing people-to-people bonds could be one of the most challenging tasks of any media. The present-day youth, as leaders of tomorrow, can enhance people-to-people connectivity to develop ideas for greater innovations for the development of the countries in the region”.

A scientist’s perspective was offered by Prof. Dr. Nguyen Van Kim, Vice Rector of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, at the OER seminar in Hanoi. Dr. Kim emphasized that open educational resources are an important topic in the current development of universities and in the future development of education in Vietnam. Copyright and open source licensing are the cornerstones of the evolution of open educational resources, open data and open access, and crucial to “industry 4.0” or the fourth industrial revolution. According to Dr. Kim, OER in Vietnam has deployed two pilot models along with in-depth workshops, research, development training and an active commitment to action in the future.

OER brings equality to people in different fields to share knowledge. It has quick updates, high interaction and transparence since unclear and duplicate studies will be detected. “By 2020, it is expected that Vietnam’s universities will be more self-reliant. If universities can work together to build and share data, they will save resources. OER creates a convenient online learning system without the need to go to schools, offers a variety of learning and self-study for unlimited target audiences, and provides learning opportunity for the under-privileged”, said Dr. Do Van Hung, Head of Telecommunications Faculty, Hanoi University of Social Sciences.

Practical uses of open data

Some development projects using open data were showcased in Mekong ICT 2017. Some of those are Susi Chatbot: an artificial intelligence for Personal Assistants, Robots, Help Desks; Open SRP: open smart register platform, an open source mobile health platform that allows frontline health workers to electronically register and track the health of their entire client population; Muria project: Marunda Urban Resilience in Action – a project that gives field mapping training to the Marunda community to collect data and create a local map. The map can help residents to better understand the condition of their neighborhood such as the location of important objects in their area and the potential of their community; OOCA: a robust evidence base that shows tele-psychiatry leading to improved outcomes and higher patient satisfaction – with the added benefits of privacy, convenience, and access to an entire community of board-licensed and credentialed therapists; and You Pin: where each city citizen can contribute to data collecting, management and analytic system for smart city and private service.

Another remarkable example of open data application in the Mekong region is the Open Development Mekong (ODM) platform. Data and information on ODM are compiled from publicly available documents and official sources. This portal is the regional expansion of the successful Open Development Cambodia (ODC) platform, a flagship project which specializes in aggregating data and developing interactive digital maps and data visualizations. Data from many sources are collated into an easily accessed platform, opening up space for informed discussion of development trends in Cambodia.

Mr. Thy Try, Executive Director of ODC, said that amongst the hundreds of thousands of users of the platform, many foreign investors use ODC’s data as a source of reference information for their investment decisions. ODC has donor funds for building its technical base but is now seeking cooperation from regional journalists and NGOs in the Mekong region to further enrich its information.

In Vietnam, open data are in trial application in some university libraries. Dr. Le Van Viet, a specialist on library history at the National Library of Vietnam, has submitted more than 40 research papers about collecting and distributing data, as well as being a pioneer in sharing his own research.

Open data especially benefits scientists from developing countries. Dr. Le Van Ut, working at the University of Oulu, Finland, asked why (Vietnamese) national scientific works are often found to be of lesser value in international publications. He suggested that the conditions are becoming more favorable for Vietnamese scientists to publish in the international arena. Referring to Springer, a prominent academic publisher, Dr. Ut said: “It is Springer’s policy to support developing countries with more open publishing. In fact, Springer has recently launched Open Access, in addition to traditional paid access through subscriptions.

Obstacles ahead

Events like the Mekong ICT 2017 and OER are showing that open data is one of the most effective tools to connect people in the region for more inclusive and participatory development. However, the building and application of open data in the region is not without its obstacles. The first difficulty may come from language: English is not the most widely used language in the Mekong region, whereas majority of data is published in English. This makes regional data-sharing more difficult and costly.

At present, the Open Development Mekong platform aims to ensure that content is made available in all the national languages for each of the country specific platforms. However, collecting information and making it accessible to national users in national language is challenging. The time, resources and expertise required are hindering factors to achieving this. The current solution implemented upon the platform allows for metadata for all datasets to be made available bilingually. This enables users to search for specific data regardless of the language it is published in, ensuring that they are aware of the information which takes them a step further to aiding their research.

According to Ms. Terry Parnell coordinator of the Mekong Land Information and Knowledge Exchange (MLIKE) online platform, open data in the Mekong Region faces 2 main difficulties. The first is differences in political structures of the Mekong countries, which can only be overcome if governments share a political will towards more openness. The second, but bigger, difficulty is group economic interests. Open data promotes information transparency, and therefore creates no loopholes for corruption. “Will different groups, especially those vested with money and power, support the aims of open data, especially if it goes against their vested economic interests?”, she queried.

Mekong ICT 2017. (Photo by Mekong ICT.)

Accessing data, and acting on the analysis, can often be different things. Even though data may clearly tell a story with proper analysis, getting the right people to act on that information, especially authorities and decision-makers, is a different proposition”, she added.

Another obstacle in the use of open data is the technology policy and legal framework. A lack of clear policy direction, investment, and inefficient management, as well as ongoing tensions between “open and close”, “right and left”3 (copyright should be strictly protected or should be opened for co-authorization) poses continuing challenges. Many data experts agree that open data application needs a clear but tight legal corridor, so that copyright law can promote yet not be a barrier to open data adoption. But merely making policy to resolve these issues may not provide a solution.

“You cannot just change the laws on open data just because you have an idea to do so”, said Ms. Pyrou Chung from the Open Development Initiative, that manages the ODM platform. “You need to create a demand for open data and demonstrate the benefit of open data. That is why we need more open data platforms so that people can participate, recognize the benefits then generate the demand for more access and openness of data. When you build a constituency within the larger community who is demanding data openly, then you can create real impact. This is a bottom-up approach that will create sustainability”.

 

Show 3 footnotes

  1. OpenCon 2017 official website: http://www.opencon2017.org/
  2. A term used by Dr. Sophia B Liu in her presentations Mekong ICT 2017
  3. A term used at OER international seminar in Hanoi
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