[okfn-discuss] Open Data Developments in Asia

Waltraut Ritter writter at ymail.com
Thu Sep 26 15:15:17 BST 2013

The Open
Knowledge Conference this year attracted delegates from 68 countries,
indicating that Open Data is indeed becoming a global movement around the
How is Open
Data adopted in Asia, the largest continent of this planet where 60 per cent of
the world population live? 
Asia has
some of the most advanced internet economies as well as some of the least
developed countries with hardly any access to information or information
infrastructure, neither analogue nor digital. 
At the
OKCon, 26 participants from 11 Asian countries were present, including Nepal, Kyrgyzstan,
Tajikistan, and Russia. In this blog, I focus on selected North and South East
Asian countries: New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea,
Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos,
Myanmar, simply because getting reliable data from all 49 Asian countries would
require much more research.   
The selected
countries are all included in the Worldbank Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) with vastly
different economic rankings.  New Zealand
achieved the highest Knowledge Economy score, closely followed by Australia,
Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan, whereas Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar score lowest in
all categories (ICT, education, economic incentive and institutional regime, innovation).
Other key indicators relevant for Open Data development are the Corruption Perception
Index (Transparency International), the World Internet Statistics and the
Democracy Index (EIU) as a measure for general governance and functioning of
According to
the 2012 World Internet Statistics, the overall internet penetration in Asia is
only 27.5 per cent, but this represents the largest numbers of users with more
than 1 billion in one continent.  Internet penetration across the listed countries ranges from 1 per cent
in Myanmar to 88 per cent in New Zealand, again with a wide gap between North
and South East Asia (except for Singapore with 75 per cent). 

South East Asia has often been
described as “Information black hole” in scholarly research on national
information strategies, with many governments restricting or denying access to
information to their citizens, based on the assumption that government
information by default rather is a secret.  Earlier this month, the government of Vietnam
enacted the “Decree 72” which limits the use of blogs and social media to
“providing or exchanging personal information”, and prohibits them from being
used to disseminate news or even information from government sites. The law
also bans content which could be “harmful” to national security or which
opposes the government (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23920541).
This kind of restrictions is based on the perception that government owns the
information and can control its use.

While North Asian countries
including New Zealand and Australia mostly have Freedom of Information (FOI) laws
in place (with the exception of Hong Kong); in South East Asia, FOI laws are
more the exception than the rule. Sometimes there are laws, put they are not
fully applied, e.g. in Thailand.  The
country’s Official Information Act (OIA) from 1997 was enacted but “the concept
of freedom of information is totally new to both Thai state officials and to
the people. Thai society thus needs some time to learn more about the
Information Law. State officials have to understand the procedures of law
enforcement better so that they know how to provide information services and
disclose information to meet public requests. Meanwhile, people should recognize their right to know and
know how to utilize the Information Act as a means of access to state
information. Thai society should recognize information law as an essential part
of establishing accountable and transparent government and as a crucial part of
eventually building up civil society. “(Quote by N. Seriak, Office of Official
Information Commission http://www.worldlii.org/int/journals/PLBIN/2000/29.html)

In 2000, the law was therefore amended
to include strategic guidelines on how to promote and develop the acknowledgement of the Act’s content,
its utilization, the mechanism and the procedures to utilize the Act to meet
people's right to access information. This example illustrates that the idea of
open information also requires a new way of thinking about information, both for
government officials and citizens. 

Only 4 of
the listed 5 countries are full democracies according to the EIU index - New
Zealand, Australia, Japan and Korea; they are also members of the OECD. The
majority of countries in Asia falls into the categories of “flawed” democracies
(Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia),
Singapore is a  “hybrid system” and at
the bottom are authoritarian governments such as Vietnam, Laos (lowest overall
score) and Myanmar, which is now currently moving into another phase of political
governance. In August this year, Myanmar officially ended censorship, thereby
jumping up to 151st out of 179 countries in the World Press Freedom
institutional regime and governance play a key role in the development of
national open data policies; in some ways they define the bandwidth of what can
be achieved in a country.
A few
examples illustrate how systemic restrictions embedded in institutional regimes
limit the potential of open data:
The Mekong
River Commission (http://www.mrcmekong.org/),
an intergovernmental organisation)  set
up in 1995 by the Mekong countries (Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos) to
collect and provide information about regional social economic development,
regional water resource management, climate change adaptation and the long-term
sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin, set up a Data Portal which is
a rich  information storehouse about everything
about the region.  Although it is a
public organisation, it comes with a complicated fee structure, depending on
who requests the information.  All
information is copyrighted and the website states that there is only one authoritative
“Master catalogue”. The reasoning is that only the MRC can ensure data quality
and consistency, and external data users cannot contribute to achieve higher data

With the ASEAN Economic Community
(AEC) coming up in 2015, the 10 member countries are forming an economic space
similar to the EU, which will also require more openness in cross-border
information and data exchanges. Trade information is already openly assessable
and in standardized format, but in a lot of other areas it is not.  So far, ASEAN only has adopted a rather vague
“ICT Masterplan”, however, it is still a long way to achieve something like an
“Open Data Masterplan” for the region. Member states are often not willing to
share information among themselves, which was quite clearly demonstrated during
this summer’s “haze” crisis, which put Singapore, parts of Malaysia and
Indonesia under a thick blanket of black smoke from illegal slash-and burn
practices whereby hundreds of hectares of land for palm oil and pulp plantations
were cleared.  The health threatening
haze led to heated exchanges between the Singapore and Indonesian governments. 

With Open Data, it would have been
relatively easy to map and analyze the land data, identifying the companies
owning the land and holding them accountable. The land concession maps are
available – to the Indonesian government, which would not release the data
citing issues of information security and transparency as reasons for not
furnishing the maps. The benefit of data sharing and open access is not on the
agenda; Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natelegaw said: "The concession
map is a means to an end (...). So it's not a question of providing data to
this and that. It's just us utilising the national system that we have…"
(Channelnewsasia 14 Aug 2013)
In another ministerial
meeting where the problems of trans-boundary haze pollution were discussed,
Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Jero Wacik reminded member states to
collaborate: "It's called sharing, you go through good times together,
don't make noise to the world when things go bad. It's just like husband and wife;
don't take your quarrel outside" (The Straits Times 20 June 2013). This
exemplary “information black hole” tradition – don’t let the world know - will
be more difficult with increased transparency, open data policies and the
demand of citizens for information.
systemic limitations can be bypassed by civil society organisations: in
Cambodia, the National Assembly rejected a draft law on FOI in January 2013
opposing the idea that the government should provide information on matters of
public concern. Since the government didn’t want to share information with
citizen, a civil organisation started their own Open Data portal. Open
Development Cambodia is an “Open Data” website, “the first of its kind in
mainland Southeast Asia. The global “Open Data” movement is based on the simple
premise that data collected for public interest should be publicly available –
without restrictions, and that information or “data” in the public domain should
be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without
restrictions. We have no agenda, other than to offer you food for thought. Bon
Appétit!”  (Quoted from their website http://www.opendevelopmentcambodia.net)
governments are beginning to realize the relationship between free flow of
information, open data and socio-economic development, and acknowledging open
data as source for innovation and reduced transaction cost for the whole
The Japanese
METI has just a few weeks ago published a report on the economic value of open
public information. It is only available in Japanese, but a translation would
benefit many other countries in the region and beyond and demonstrate that Open
Data can be a source for innovation and economic development. While the
potential economic value of Open Data is one of the main drivers for governments
in the more developed countries in Asia to push for new policies and re-use
regulations, South East Asian countries are largely still debating access to

Interestingly, the Philippines
were the largest delegation at the OKCon from Asia. The country will launch
their Open Data portal in November 2013. As a country with a strong,
information aware civil society, Open Data could accelerate socio-economic development.
The Philippines also score low on bureaucratic transparency, but internet
penetration is relatively high (around 34 per cent) and the Aquino
administration now states that the freedom of information (FOI) bill is a
priority legislative measure and promised to endorse the bill to the Senate and
the House of Representatives for passage into law soon. 

The diversity of countries in
Asia, with highly advanced internet economies and mature democracies on one
side, and countries with very limited information society readiness, could
provide us with a lot of insights for understanding the interdependencies
between openness and overall development of a country. Since the collaboration
and knowledge sharing among Asian countries is relatively weak, perhaps an
online sharing space such as the European EPSI platform http://epsiplatform.eu/ could increase the
awareness about Open Data in Asia.  
The potential of Open Data in
Asia is huge; both for emerging and developed countries, and the trajectory for
each country highly depends on national information policies and cultures. 

Waltraut Ritter, Opendata Hong
waltraut at opendata.hk.com

26 September 2013
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.okfn.org/pipermail/okfn-discuss/attachments/20130926/10dff021/attachment-0001.htm>

More information about the okfn-discuss mailing list