By Gerard Best
TORTOLA, BVI – Across the Caribbean, governments are moving their essential services to digital platforms and generating more data than ever. Yet, much valuable public information remains locked away in proprietary systems, beyond the reach of Caribbean innovators and end users. A growing number of open data initiatives aim to change this, but it won’t be easy.
“The Caribbean can benefit tremendously from open data as part of its development agenda,” said Bevil Wooding, Internet Strategist, in a presentation on Open Data at the 13th Strategic ICT Seminar of the Caribbean Telecommunications Union held in Tortola, British Virgin Islands on 30th September 2015.
His call to make more government data available was timely, as he addressed an audience that included several government ministers and officials from across the region. Extracting maximum value from data is increasingly becoming a base-level requirement, as governments aim to measure progress and demonstrate achievements.
“Transparency, openness and accountability are three of the main benefits of open data,” Wooding pointed out. “However, there are also significant social and economic benefits that can be derived from the development of new applications and services based on open data.”
The Seminar was also addressed by Anat Lewin, an ICT Policy Specialist with the World Bank. Lewin shared on the work of the Bank in open data projects in the Caribbean, including Open Data Readiness Assessments in Antigua & Barbuda, Jamaica and St Lucia. She also announced that the Bank is supporting development of online open data portals in Jamaica and St Lucia.
In an interview following his presentation, Wooding noted that governments play a key role in collecting and disseminating data, but he said some are more open and effective than others.
“Open government is about more than a simple commitment to share data. It’s also about supporting a larger ecosystem for using data and spurring innovative new applications of data by tapping into creativity and resources that are not available within any single organisation.”
The process of making government more open, he said, is not an easy one, as it involves confronting tough questions, and unlocking entrenched mindsets concerning exactly what data should be open to the public.
“Governments are wrestling with the dilemma between promoting open data on one hand and maintaining data sovereignty and control on the other,” he said.
“The challenge has always been about where to strike a balance between the openness and information control.”
Privacy concerns are one of the most common obstacles faced by open data advocates. Even as the open data movement gains strength, difficult questions remain about how to protect information about private citizens. Without proper controls, such information could be used to shame, discriminate or cause other undesirable outcomes.
“In some countries, there’s simply not much data to share anyway,” Wooding said. “Data gaps are particularly acute in emerging markets that lack technology-powered systems, active research communities and strong institutional frameworks for data collection. Other countries have plenty of data, but don’t have tools, protocols or leadership motivation for using data effectively and ethically.”
To overcome these challenges, a growing array of stakeholders—including tech innovators, research institutions, governments, civil society, academia and individuals—are banding together to develop new models to promote and leverage open data. Theirs is a difficult but necessary struggle for the greater good of the region.