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Growing Open Data in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

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[Note that this post was originally published on the International Open Data Conference (IODC) website. It offers reflections on discussions on the state of Open Data in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region.]



By: Irena Cerović

Irena Cerović is the Portfolio Manager in UNDP Serbia’s governance team.

This year’s IODC featured a big leap in the number of people coming from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, signifying a new part of the world taking up the open data agenda. While this region comprises countries of vastly different size, economic power, and political culture, containing at least three more coherent subregions, what binds them in this context is the sense of being new in the game.

The policy-makers, activists, researchers, and techies from these countries were thus greeted by a global community more mature, pensive, and self-critical than would have been the case several years ago.

Indeed, the gradual pace of progress with open data in the region may suggest that a more thoughtful approach is being taken by these countries internally as well. In good part, of course, this comes of necessity – at least in the Balkans, challenges may concern the mere existence of data, significant quality issues, muddled lines of authority, and a nascent administrative and political culture of evidence-based policy-making. In addition, the overwhelming aspiration of joining the EU coupled with a deep fiscal crisis leaves governments with little maneuvering room or mental space for further innovation. Yet there we all were, reporting more than mere exploratory steps. Ukraine has just joined the International Open Data Charter, Serbia has gone from an ODRA to first hackathons and portal development in little over a year, and other parts of the region are articulating innovative ways of using data to address citizen needs.

Among the reasons for this shift are the relative maturity of civil societies and the readiness of policymakers to benefit from others’ hindsight and consider questions of defining and measuring impact, ensuring feedback loops, prioritizing, and involving users early. The success of these initiatives will depend on how strongly these factors can be sustained over time, and how creative practitioners will be in identifying demand where it exists.

One of the important themes in the East Europe regional talk at IODC16 concerned the ostensible lack of demand for open data in our societies. A recent study in Serbia found both “a very small number of civil society stakeholders who are actively engaged with the topic of open data” and outlined significant potential particularly through partnerships with academia, the tech community, and the media. Activists in Kosovo* deliberately shift attention away from the abstract label of “open data”, focusing entirely on tools for addressing problems of jobs or skills. In Kazakhstan, where the agenda is driven from the top and as part of an ambitious digital drive, demand is more likely defined through use of services. But across the board, results are defined through use, rather than production.

The case for openness is equally strong in countries where open data is developing alongside nascent FOI regulation and where such regulation has been solidly in place for a decade or longer. Although the latter may have the advantage of working institutional arrangements and more ripe general awareness, activists in most countries will still report the threat of open washing as a crucial concern.

The IODC concluded with a firm shared understanding of community commitments for next year’s conference. Questions of capacity building beyond literacy, and even more so those raised as the need for more, and more collaborative research will surely be followed carefully by East Europeans and Central Asians alike.

* This designation is without prejudice to positions on status, and is in line with UNSC 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo Declaration of Independence