Blogbox | Government

Opening data

The case for more open and accessible data in Kosovo.

By - 25.07.2020

Last year, as an exchange student in Finland, I experienced firsthand what a liberal, open, and digitized society looks like. I was surprised to see that every public service was online and just a click away; the amount of information that was publicly available was mind-blowing. 

A friend of mine recommended checking the governmental data portal called opendata.fi, developed by the Finish Digital and Population Data Services Agency. This portal offers a range of open data from sixteen categories: Government & Society, STEM, Transportation, collected in a simple and readable format, free to access, and reuse. 

One of the tasks assigned at the Häme University of Applied Sciences was to showcase a successful case of a country’s efforts in open data. Surfing through their website, I was inspired to do similar research about my home country — Kosovo — and see what the government has done with regard to opening up data and making it accessible for the public.

What is open data?

It is the idea that data should be available to every citizen for free for any purpose; the ability to reuse the data, without restrictions of copyrights or patents, and republish as anyone wishes. Examples include population census data, maps, or even real-time data about the locations of buses/trains. 

Since its inception in 1942, when several scientists decided to make their findings open for discussion and analysis, there have been concerns with data privacy and those concerns are especially prevalent with the rise of technological advancement.

However, “open data shouldn’t, and generally doesn’t, include the personal information of an individual.” Open data is structured, fact-checked and must adhere to relevant regulations of a specific country before publishing; cross-referencing and interconnection of a few databases and data sets is the simplest solution to deferring from similar concerns.

Countries around the world have initiated partnerships aiming at opening up governments. The most significant partnership is the Open Government Partnership launched in 2011, with eight founding countries and a total of 78 member countries who have pledged to the Open Government Declaration. Unfortunately, Kosovo is not a member of OGP, due to political reasons, even though it has made efforts to reform and digitize the public administration.

Kosovo’s open government data efforts, as part of the public administration reform, began back in the early 2014, when the government pledged to develop and implement the National Action Plan as a commitment to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) but was still not admitted.

Various efforts have been focused on promoting civic participation, increasing transparency and strengthening of integrity in public institutions.

Although this presented a huge setback, the Ministry for Public Administration (MPA) in 2015 began implementing the Open Data Initiative right after the Government approved the International Open Data Charter, which delegates the work of the National Action Plan and the enacting of the National Open Data Portal.

 In 2018 the MPA released the Readiness Assessment Report on Open Data that provides an overview of the status quo of open data in Kosovo. This report, among other valuable information and objectives in the field of open data, highlights some digital venues where citizens can acquire specific information, that is, Central Bank of Kosovo, Agency for Information Society and Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning. 

However, some findings showcase how these websites are not built on strong information systems, and that these portals are to be developed further. Until now, Kosovo has signed directives, pledged to action plans, assessed their capacities and has created the National Open Data Portal where several data sets can be found. 

Nonetheless, civil society initiatives for open data in Kosovo began much earlier; various efforts have been focused on promoting civic participation, increasing transparency, strengthening of integrity in public institutions and observing state performance since 1999. 

The Kosovo Democratic Institute and the Transparency International Chapter in Kosovo (1999) began efforts to strengthen citizens to demand transparency and public accountability and to engage in policy making. 

In 2005, with the Organization Çohu (Stand-up) whose focus lies in enhancing transparency of government spending, the GAP Institute, a think tank involved in shaping public policies, began offering open data on the State budget, among other areas. 

In 2012, the Kallxo.com online portal, developed by Balkan Investigative Research Network, whose purpose is to reveal corruption cases in Kosovo and research that covers areas ranging from financial analysis on public money spent, access to public documents, and election monitoring. 

Open Data Kosovo, has several projects on open data, youth empowerment and ICT development, accompanied by the development of data driven digital solutions. Civil society organizations are continuously contributing to the opening up of the data. 

However, their efforts must be paired with the government initiatives: Institutions with the intention to provide better services to the public and introduce good practices through joint efforts.

Government efforts to open its data

The 2016 UNDP report on the Role of Open Data for Sustainable Development, suggested that although Kosovo established an open data portal in 2015, the portal is inefficient because of the low number of data sets and the infrequent updates, all this just one year after implementation.

Additionally, Kosovo lags behind opening up the government data due to the poor transformation of its legal and policy infrastructure.

Similarly, a report from the UN Commission in 2019, stated that the existing portal is functional but “the quality of registered data needs to improve for the platform to be useful.” Such reports impede ideas that Kosovo has created a fully functional platform and also claims that “while legislation on equal access to services is in place, it is not systematically applied.”

According to the Global Open Data Index, Kosovo is ranked as 0% Open, in terms of the percentage of data sets that are fully open as defined by the Open Definition. Kosovo is ranked in 58th place in comparison to the other countries listed, including others in the Western Balkans. 

Further, Kosovo scores only a 26% in the weighted questions. This highlights the lack of sufficient data sets, open licenses, machine-readable formats, and the capacity of data to be downloaded in bulk — which makes open data an illusion in Kosovo. 

Additionally, Kosovo lags behind opening up the government data due to the poor transformation of its legal and policy infrastructure, as noted in the 2015 Riinvest Institute report. Due to “the undefined guidelines of existing laws in Kosovo in terms of how data is disclosed and dispersed, on top of a low level of web presence and the need for continued training of employees of public bodies, especially employees charged with managing data, information and web content,” the report concludes.

Findings show that in Kosovo, there are multiple trends preventing the success of current open data progress. One is a lack of skilled personnel in the public sector, which is why Georges Labreche established Open Data Kosovo as a venue where youth can be trained in the technology sector, among other training programs.

Another issue seems to stem from concentrating on very few data sets and inaccurate data collection. To avoid this, the government must ensure that the data collection is done continuously from various sources, regularly, and not episodically. 

According to the Open Knowledge Foundation, there has been some progress in opening up data in Kosovo, including the partial publication of data in a digital format; in addition, the copyright law in Kosovo offers the possibility for the placement of public documents in available free domains. With crucial mechanisms in place, a great shift can be made. The digital savvy coupled with the push from civil society and watchdog organizations could produce amazing outcomes. 

What can be improved?

An example of a success story that Kosovo could follow, is Finland. I may sound biased when I suggest this, but imagine yourself going to a foreign country for the first time, to build yourself a life for six months and have zero problems doing that. This is what Finland means to me in a nutshell. I could hardly imagine that such a digitized society could exist, where I got any kind of help I needed from a simple search online. 

The type of data that is interesting for young audiences is not necessarily interesting for older audiences.

The amount of open resources and information I was able to access from municipality websites, and the Finnish government portal of open data suggested by my friend was immense. Did I need to visit the civil registry office to get a Finnish identity number? I got the location, the documents needed to submit and the application form all online. If I wanted to go on a road trip by bus, the information on the bus line, prices, online ticket reservation and payment were all in the portal. The open data is made for every audience there, whether you’re a tourist, a senior citizen, a student, or simply looking for insights in any area of your interest.

Another experience worth sharing was when I had an unexpected allergic reaction at the end of November 2019. As worried as I was about my health, I was not worried about the information on the hospital, type of medical service, the fees, the invoices by mail and the appointments available for my medical condition. Under the category of Health in the Finnish Open Data portal you can find all this information and more, quite easily. 

Kosovo, in this regard, does have two municipality websites, Prishtina and Gjakova. But, I am certain that I would not come across these webpages had I not researched the topic, that means existing websites do not reach audiences properly. Even when surfing these websites, I felt that the data there are not inclusive in terms of age, education level and the different levels of political engagement of citizens. 

This is because, as mentioned by OECD in their report on Engaging Young People in Open Government, open data must also target (young) audiences who have a relatively low level of political engagement and are future voters. The type of data that is interesting for young audiences is not necessarily interesting for older audiences. While political analysts would look for data on where tax money is going, depending on the education level, some people may not be prone to look for where the budget is being spent, or understand the complicated files with financial information on specific projects. 

I cannot help but think that Finland treated open information like an asset.

What some may enjoy, and I must include myself here, is information about existing youth engagement channels, scholarships, information on what the government is doing to make our lives better and data that is understandable or at least has a simpler explanation on why the information shared is important for the audience. 

While it is true that the existing websites in Kosovo have data sets, the failure to create integrated, timely, interesting and engaging content for the websites of open data is prevalent. Understanding that some websites are created for specific audiences should not hide the fact that the National Open Data portal is created for every visitor regardless of profession, age, interests and education level. 

Because Kosovo is a multiethnic country, the non-majority communities in Kosovo need access to the same data that I have. Boosting these websites, raising awareness of the importance of engaging in an open society is essential and important for a government to teach to young generations that will lead in the near future.

Today, as I write this blog from the comfort of my own home in Gjilan, Kosovo, I cannot help but think that Finland treated open information like an asset. You know, just like a tour guide uses information about mountains and historical landmarks as assets to entertain the travelers. 

But, I also think that this idea I have about Finland would have not been true if their government would defer from projects that transform policies into pragmatic and effective processes. I believe this is what so many developing countries lack, and one of the best lessons learned that can be drawn from my experience is the importance of having a close collaboration between the citizens, government and nongovernmental sector (including the private sector) in shaping a developed society. Having key mechanisms on board with the same goals and objectives in mind is crucial for successful performance.

Kosovo could follow the same steps. The Ministry of Public Administration should appoint appropriate intermediaries to establish practices that are technologically advanced and support the “interoperability of information and the accessibility of open data.” This can be achieved through the scalable and flexible updates on the portal that facilitate data mining. In addition, in line with the action plan in the open data readiness assessment, “the government should make more data sets available on its open data platform.” 

Strengthening the proctoring and management of data is crucial because this will lead to the creation of portfolios containing best practices and lessons learned. A resource the Government can use is Open Data Kosovo, through offering training for unskilled workers.

Steps forward

A clear division of roles and responsibilities among all agencies and stakeholders involved in opening of governmental data is essential. A governmentwide coordination implies a division of roles in Kosovo between the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Public Administration, including the Agency for Information Society, other line ministries, representatives from the ICT sector, and representatives from NGO’s. Media coverage to spread awareness and enhance public knowledge about the importance of opening up data is crucial as well. 

It’s essential that Kosovo’s endeavors toward open data be driven by the fact that transparency prompts the public’s trust and engagement, governmental credibility and promotes innovation.

The Kosovo institutions should show willingness and political commitment to ensure every government agency will provide their data sets to the government open data portal regularly and in a machine-readable format, and why they are useful for. They should not just put data there and think a vague title is sufficient to check the box of “updating data.” The steering committees on open data should advance the existing policies and monitor the implementation through regular communication and information sharing. 

The other designated participants will facilitate the growth of the open data initiative, by offering consultancy and guiding media coverage to keep the public updated and spread awareness on the open data reform taking place. Lastly, an evaluation of the reform is crucial to see the success of it and this phase should include necessary mechanisms for accountability, whose sole purpose is to oversee the reform so that it differs from “legislative, budgetary, administrative and regulatory inconsistencies.” 

Therefore, as an open data enthusiast, I believe that when there’s a will, there’s a way. I think that apart from Kosovo’s goal to join the international initiatives on open data, it is crucial to implement the policies at home as a proof that the current interventions are not meaningless pledges. 

The recommended reforms of policies and practices will ensure that a cross-governmental alliance works out and the partnership with other actors, including the civil society and the private sector, is strengthened. It’s essential that Kosovo’s endeavors toward open data be driven by the fact that transparency prompts the public’s trust and engagement, governmental credibility and promotes innovation. Citizens, especially youth, are more educated now on how to engage in their political life — and this also includes the right to access open data by institutions that govern them.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.