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:

 

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Corridors of Power Panel: Tapping our ‘Hybrid Media Reality’ to secure democracy in Sri Lanka

Sanjana Hattotuwa, curator, introduces panel L to R Asoka Obeyesekere, Amantha Perera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Lakshman Gunasekera

Sanjana Hattotuwa, curator, introduces panel L to R Asoka Obeyesekere, Amantha Perera, Nalaka Gunawardene, Lakshman Gunasekera. Photo by Manisha Aryal

I just spoke on a panel on “Framing discourse: Media, Power and Democracy” which was part of the public exhibition in Colombo called Corridors of power: Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka’s tryst with democracy.

Media panel promo

The premise for our panel was as follows:

The architecture of the mainstream media, and increasingly, social media (even though distinct divisions between the two are increasingly blurred) to varying degrees reflects or contests the timbre of governance and the nature of government.

How can ‘acts of journalism’ by citizens revitalise democracy and how can journalism itself be revived to engage more fully with its central role as watchdog?

In a global contest around editorial independence stymied by economic interests within media institutions, how can Sri Lanka’s media best ensure it attracts, trains and importantly, retains a calibre of journalists who are able to take on the excesses of power, including the silencing of inconvenient truths by large corporations?

The panel, moderated by lawyer and political scientist Asoka Obeyesekere comprised freelance journalist Amantha Perera, Sunday Observer editor Lakshman Gunasekera, and myself.

Here are my opening remarks (including some remarks made during Q&A).

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks during media panel at Corridors of Power - Photo by Manisha Aryal

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks during media panel at Corridors of Power – Photo by Manisha Aryal

Panel on “Framing discourse: Media, Power and Democracy”

20 Sep 2015, Colombo

Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene

Curator Sanjana has asked us to reflect on a key question: What is the role of media in securing democracy against its enemies, within the media itself and beyond?

I would argue that we are in the midst of multiple, overlapping deficits:

  • Democracy Deficit, a legacy of the past decade in particular, which is now recognised and being addressed (but we have a long way to go)
  • Public Trust Deficit in politicians and public institutions – not as widely recognised, but is just as pervasive and should be worrying us all.
  • Media Deficit, probably the least recognised deficit of all. This has nothing to do with media’s penetration or outreach. Rather, it concerns how our established (or mainstream) MEDIA FALLS SHORT IN PERFORMING the responsibilities of watchdog, public platform and the responsibility to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

In this context, can new media – citizens leveraging the web, mobile devices and the social media platforms – bridge this deficit?

My answer is both: YES and NO!

YES because new media opportunities can be seized – and are being seized — by our citizens to enhance a whole range of public interest purposes, including:

  • Political participation
  • Advocacy and activism
  • Transparency and accountability in public institutions
  • Peace-building and reconciliation
  • Monitoring and critiquing corporate conduct

All these trends are set to grow and involve more and more citizens in the coming years. Right now, one in four Lankans uses the web, mostly thru mobile devices.

BUT CAN IT REPLACE THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA?

NO, not in the near term. For now, these counter-media efforts are not sufficient by themselves to bridge the three deficits I have listed above. The mainstream media’s products have far more outreach and and the institutions, far more resources.

Also, the rise of citizen-driven new media does NOT – and should NOT — allow mainstream media to abdicate its social responsibilities.

This is why we urgently need MEDIA SECTOR REFORMS in Sri Lanka – to enhance editorial independence AND professionalism.

The debate is no longer about who is better – Mainstream media (MSM) or citizen driven civic media.

WE NEED BOTH.

So let us accept and celebrate our increasingly HYBRID MEDIA REALITY (‘hybrid’ seems to be currently popular!). This involves, among other things:

  • MSM drawing on Civic Media content; and
  • Civic Media spreading MSM content even as they critique MSM

To me, what really matters are the ACTS OF JOURNALISM – whether they are RANDOM acts or DELIBERATE acts of journalism.

Let me end by drawing on my own experience. Trained and experienced in mainstream print and broadcast media, I took to web-based social media 8 years ago when I started blogging (for fun). I started tweeting five years ago, and am about to cross 5,000 followers.

It’s been an interesting journey – and nowhere near finished yet.

Everyday now, I have many and varied CONVERSATIONS with some of my nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter. Here are some of the public interest topics we have discussed during this month:

  • Rational demarcation of Ministry subject areas (a lost cause now)
  • Implications of XXL Cabinet of the National/Consensus Govt
  • Questionable role of our Attorney General in certain prosecutions
  • Report on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Session
  • Is Death Penalty the right response to rise of brutal murders?
  • Can our media be more restrained and balanced in covering sexual crimes involving minors?
  • How to cope with Hate Speech on ethnic or religious grounds
  • What kind of Smart Cities or MegaCity do we really need?
  • How to hold CocaCola LK responsible for polluting Kelani waters?

Yes, many of these are fleeting and incomplete conversations. So what?

And also, there’s a lot of noise in social media: it’s what I call the Global Cacophony.

BUT these conversations and cross-talk often enrich my own understanding — and hopefully help other participants too.

Self-promotional as this might sound, how many Newspaper Editors in Sri Lanka can claim to have as many public conversations as I am having using social media?

Let me end with the closing para in a chapter on social media and governance I recently wrote for Transparency International’s Sri Lanka Governance Report 2014 (currently in print):

“Although there have been serious levels of malgovernance in Sri Lanka in recent years, the build up on social media platforms to the Presidential Election 2015 showed that Lankan citizens have sufficient maturity to use ICTs and other forms of social mobilisation for a more peaceful call for regime change. Channelling this civic energy into governance reform is the next challenge.”

Photo by Sanjana Hattotuwa

Photo by Sanjana Hattotuwa