Today, I gave the opening speech at an introductory seminar on ‘open data’ held at the Sri Lanka Press Institute, Colombo, on 15 Oct 2015.
Organised by InterNews and Transparency International Sri Lanka, the seminar explored the concepts of ‘open data’ and ‘big data’ and discussed that role civil society, media and technologists can play in advocating to government to open up its data, enabling a culture of transparency and open government.
My premise was that while the proliferation of digital tools and growth of web-based data storage (the cloud) opens up new possibilities for information generation and sharing, South Asian societies need to tackle institutional and cultural factors before democratised and digital data can really transform governance and development. Our countries must adopt more inclusive policies and practices for public sharing of scientific and other public data.
This resonates with a call by the United Nations for a ‘data revolution for development’. I cited the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG) highlighted this in a report titled A World That Counts: Mobilising The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (Nov 2014).
I also referred to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted by member states of the UN at a heads of state level summit in New York on 25-27 September 2015. Underpinning all 17 SDGs is an explicit recognition of the value of data for development — to better inform decisions, and to better monitor progress.
Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena addressed the Summit, and officially committed Sri Lanka to the SDGs. I argue that implicit in that commitment is a recognition of data for development and open data policies. We now need to ask our government to introduce a government-wide policy on data collection, storage and sharing. In short, it must open up!
This was my open call to the President to open up:
Sri Lanka has taken tentative steps towards open data. In 2013, the Open Data initiative of Government started making some official datasets freely available online. It focuses on machine-readable (well-structured and open) datasets.
I quoted from my own recent op-ed published in Daily Mirror broadsheet newspaper:
After many years of advocacy by civil society, Sri Lanka will soon adopt a law that guarantees citizens’ Right to Information (RTI). It has recently been added to the Constitution as a fundamental right.
Passing the RTI law is only a beginning — institutionalising it requires much effort, considerable funds, and continued vigilance on civil society’s part.
As champions of RTI, media and civil society must now switch roles, I said. While benefiting from RTI themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere, showing citizens how best to make use of it. Reorienting our public institutions to a new culture of openness and information sharing will be an essential step.
The term ‘smart city’ refers to urban systems, and not to the smartness of residents. In fact, there is no universal definition of smart cities: it can mean smart utilities, smart housing, smart mobility or smart design.
Smart cities use information and communications technologies (ICTs) as their principal infrastructure. These become the basis for improving the quality and performance of urban services, reducing costs and resource consumption, and for engaging citizens more effectively.
ICTs – ranging from automatic sensors to data centres — would create ‘feedback loops’ within the complex city systems. If processed properly, this flow of data in real time can vastly improve the design of “hard” physical environment and the provision of “soft” services to citizens.
In this week’s Ravaya column, (in Sinhala, appearing in issue of 4 Oct 2015), I explore the concept of smart cities, which the new government of Sri Lanka wants to develop.
I argue that smart cities need empowered people and engaged city administrators. I have argued in earlier in this column, concrete and steel do not a city make. Likewise, ICT enabled smart infrastructure alone will not create smart cities – unless the human factor is well integrated.