Exploring Open Data and Open Government in Sri Lanka

An Open Dialogue about Open Data

An Open Dialogue about Open Data

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.

An Open Dialogue on Open Data - 15 Oct 2015 Coloombo - L to R - Sriganesh Lokanathan, Nalaka Gunawardene, Sanjana Hattotuwa [Photo by Sam de Silva]

An Open Dialogue on Open Data – 15 Oct 2015 Coloombo – L to R – Sriganesh Lokanathan, Nalaka Gunawardene, Sanjana Hattotuwa [Photo by Sam de Silva]

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).

A World that Counts...

A World that Counts…

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:

Open Your Govt's Data, Mr President! Hope you don't give us HAL's famous answer...

Open Your Govt’s Data, Mr President! Hope you don’t give us HAL’s famous answer…

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:

Daily Mirror, 14 Sep 2015: Beyond RTI: Moving to Open Data and Open Govt. by Nalaka Gunawardene

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.

RTI is Coming: Are We Ready? My question to Lankan civil society and media

RTI is Coming: Are We Ready? My question to Lankan civil society and media

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.

Here is my full PPT:


Wiz Quiz 9: Arthur C Clarke’s HAL, are you here yet?

Joy of Tech tribute to Arthur C Clarke, 19 March 2008

This week marks the third death anniversary of Sir Arthur C Clarke, author and futurist.

Among the numerous tributes that poured out all over the world following his departure, I found one especially poignant. It was the ‘Joy of Tech’ cartoon above, showing the sentient computer HAL 9000 (from 2001: A Space Odyssey) shedding a single tear in his memory…

In fact, researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) are still trying to create a real-life HAL, which remains the ‘Holy Grail’ in their line of work: a machine-based intelligence that mimics the human mind in all its nuances, and not just in raw processing power.

This is proving much harder than creating chess-playing or quiz-winning computers: human beings are capable of a wide range of emotions some of which – such as intuition and sense of humour – are still not within the capabilities of advanced AI systems.

In this week’s Wiz Quiz, I pay tribute to both HAL and his creator with a few questions on the march of supercomputers. We ask the long-running question: Can computers outsmart us?

Indeed, that prospect is becoming more real every passing year. An IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue created history in May 1997 when it won a six-game match by two wins to one with three draws against the then world chess champion. A few weeks ago, another human bastion fell — and this one concerns me more as a quiz enthusiast (I never learnt the rules of chess, and don’t understand what all that fuss is about.)

On 17 February 2011, a supercomputer owned by the IBM Corporation beat two veteran quizzers to win a high profile game in the long-running US quiz show called Jeopardy. The supercomputer won with US$77,147, while its nearest rival Ken Jennings, a 74-time winner of the popular trivia quiz, came in second with US$24,000. Brad Rutter, who has in previous appearances won a total of US$3.3 million, was third with US$21,600. IBM plans to donate the computer’s winnings to charity.

What was the name of this quiz-winning supercomputer?

In HAL 9000’s name, what did the letters HAL stand for?

Which famous rocket scientist once said: “Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft…and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labour”?

These are among the 15 questions in this week’s Wiz Quiz. Test your brains against ours (supercomputers may not participate!).