By Tulasi Nepal
On March 2 of this year, International Open Data Day was celebrated. It was a special celebration for Nepal as no less than 26 different events were held throughout the country making it the world leader in Open Data Day events! To make data open and accessible for people in Nepal, Bikas Udhyami’sNepal in DataInitiative organized an Open Data Day Infographic Exhibition Tour titled ‘Visualizing Development Through Open Data’ visiting various locations in Nepal and a Panel Discussion on Open Data & Civic Awareness in Hetauda on Open Data Day itself.
Open Data Infographic Exhibition Tour 2019
We started the Open Data Day Tour on February 25 in Itahari in Province 1 at Reyukai Chautari and subsequently travelled to Janakpur, where the infographic exhibition was held in front of the beautiful Janaki Mandir of Janakpur (Province 2) on March 27. The Tour culminated with an exhibition in Sahid Smarak and panel discussion in Hetauda (Province 3) on Open Data Day on March 2. It was the second time Bikas Udhyami organized an event to celebrate Open Data Day. Last year, we partnered with several other organizations to organize the celebrations at Patan Durbar square. This year, we decided to reach out to the people living outside Kathmandu Valley and who often do not get an opportunity to participate in events to increase their awareness of open data as well as interact with them on the importance of data.
The Government of Nepal and its various agencies at the federal level have produced data in a wide range of areas and several of the ministries and departments publish their data through their respective websites. However, most of the data published is in PDF format and to find the data you have to go through lengthy reports. So how accessible are these data really to people? In the new federal structure, there is an opportunity for the provincial and local governments to lead the way and make the data and statistics they produce open and accessible to everyone. One of the objectives of the tour was therefore to make more people aware of the importance of (open) data for local development and understand people's perceptiion of data in Nepal.
In all the three locations, people really enjoyed the exhibition with estimated 1550 people visiting the exhibition including youth, students, politicians, local level representatives, journalists, civil servants, and security personnel. For many of the visitors, it was the first time that they attended an exhibition in their area. The exhibition featured around 60 infographics related to Open data, the socio-economic status of Nepal and infographics on local issues of each of the locations on the tour. Visitors in particular took an interest in the infographics relating to local development such as the status of HDI of their provinces as well as related to agricultural products, educational status and women rights.
In Hetauda, we organized a Panel Discussion on Open Data and Civic Awareness with six speakers i.e Mrs. Mina Kumari Lama, Deputy Mayor of Hetauda Sub-metropolitan city; Mr.Kewal Prasad Bhandari, Secretary, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Planning, Province 3; Mr. Anup Paudel, Economist and Personal Secretary of Chief Minister of Province 3; Mr. Hari Humagain, President of Federation of Nepali Journalist at Makawanpur Chapter; Mr. Krishna Dhital, President of NGO federation Makawanpur and Mr. Santosh Gartaula, CEO at Bikas Udhyami. The discussion revolved around the different aspects of open data and the current use and challenges associated with open data along with action plans required to overcome these.
Some of the issues raised by people attending the infographic exhibitions and panel discussion included:
1. Data and open data are still a very new concepts
For many people that we met at the infographic exhibition, both data and especially open data were new concepts. Many persons asked how the opening up of government data will affect their day to day lives and affect their decision making capability. Among young people, there was a slightly greater awareness of open data and why governments and public institutions have to open data.
2.Limited Trust in government data
In Itahari, visitors to the infographic exhibition asked questions about the reliability and validity of data produced by the government. A key issue that emerged from the conversations with them was the lack of trust in publically available data and whether the data really originates from the field. One visitor asked about the reliability of agricultural data that the Department of Agriculture published in the year 2016/17, which we had featured in the infographic ‘Status of Cereal Production in Nepal’, and expressed doubt that these data do not aptly represent the ground reality in province 3.
3.The potential for open data to deepen people’s understanding of local development
Given that in Nepal there is not yet an established data culture in which people base their views and opinions on data and facts, it was encouraging to see that the young people attending the exhibitions were much more informed and aware of data. Many young people expressed that the visualization of data through infographics was helpful to develop further develop their knowledge and insight of their local development context. The infographic exhibition demonstrated again to us the potential that data has to enable citizens to be able to track progress and development. Many of the infographics showcased how Province 3 is performing better than other provinces in terms of socio-economic indicators. Many visitors to the exhibition in Province 3 were concerned that poor and marginalized people in their Province were at risk of potentially being overlooked based on the data. In other provinces, visitors highlighted the need to reallocate resources to other provinces based on their needs to facilitate equal development .In Janakpur, some of the young persons attending the exhibition, after learning about the meaning of the Human Development Index (HDI) and its distribution across the local bodies, instantly said that the government of Nepal should allocate more resources to the local spheres which have an extremely low HDI scored. Anil Shah, a local youth, said “this approach to aware people about open data really helps us to think through how we can advocate with governments at various spheres to come up with people-centric development policies and help us to understand whether the governments are working in line with the proposed objectives or are deviating from it.”
4. The lack of management information systems that are interoperable remains a big challenge
During the question & answer session, several questions were asked about database management and management information systems. One participant asked about the Hetauda Sub-Metropolitan’s plans to improve database management to prevent the current practice whereby the family of deceased person continue to receive social security benefits of deceased persons. One of the main reasons is that civil registration systems containing births and death information are not fully integrated at subnational level with social security management information systems. Another reason is that people fail to register births and deaths, because they do not understand the importance of registration and incentives are such to register. Responding to the query,Mrs. Mina Kumari Lama, Deputy Mayor of Hetauda Sub-metropolitan city, Makawanpur stated that the City has already made birth and death registration free of cost and has started a campaign among the people to encourage them to register births and deaths to register it. Mr. Asok Sujan Shrestha, a local journalist, asked to clarify how Hetauda Sub-metropolitan city is going to make data publicly available in usable format.
Mrs. Lama highlighted the challenges she herself faces in formulating policies and programs when there is very limited data available at the local sphere. “During my tenure as a deputy-mayor, I have attended several ceremonies to present awards to participants of training workshops, but what I find wherever go training participants were almost the same to receive an award. Why this is happening? Why do the same persons participate and turn up to receive a certificate at every training? It compelled me to think about what are the reasons behind these scenarios, and later on, I came to realize that the paucity of proper data on who has taken training already and who is taking it for the first time is the reason why we are faced with such problems.”
5. Evidence based policy making is challenging in the absence of data
While opening data is critical, various people highlighted the challenges in evidence based policy making due to the lack of available data. During the panel discussion in Hetauda, the speakers unanimously concluded that in the past the lack of reliable data has resulted in ineffective policies, plans, and programs, and that this situation continues today. In the past, efforts were being made to produce and publish data from several government institutions, but till now it has not been materialized. Mr. Kewal Prasad Bhandari, Secretary, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Planning of Province 3 noted that “From the beginning of First Periodic Plan, we have been talking about strengthening the national statistical system, but unfortunately talks continued to till the date with no results. I think it's a high time to manage and produce credible and reliable data so that we could devise objective policies and plans, otherwise, we will be talking about the same issues over and over.” Mr. Bhandari and Mr. Anup Paudel, Economist and Personal Secretary of Chief Minister of Province 3, assured that the Province 3 government will develop a database system and formulate plans and policies based on evidence and data. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Planning of Province 3 has already launched a Project Bank recently to channelize resources to prioritized areas of Province 3. The Chief Minister’ Office has also given priority to develop database systems. Mr Paudel, informed that ”We have come up with the idea of database management in province 3 to generate data and make this available to every citizen. It will be our major tool to streamlining our development effort. ” Mr. Bhandari further informed that Province 3 government is going to use available evidence and data in the preparation of the upcoming budget for FY 2019/20.
6. Using the right to information procedures is cumbersome to get data
Various speakers and participants, especially from the civil society, highlighted how government official has not been forthcoming in opening and providing access to the government data.. Mr. Hari Humagain, President of Federation of Nepali Journalists at the Makawanpur Chapter gave an example of the challenges people face when trying to obtain data. The “Right to Information Act 2064 provides us with the right to access data produced by the government of Nepal and other public institutions. However, the practice of accessing data is not so easy as the act talks about. As a journalist, I have bitter experience around it. Once I had requested the regional department of Nepal Electricity Authority at Hetauda to provide data on the availability, current use and leakage of electricity in Hetauda. They declined to give data at first, so I filed a complaint at the National Information Commission. However, the department did not follow the order of the Commission to provide the requested information. Again I had to to go to the Commission to get this information and finally after encountering these hassles I managed to get the data. This is the real situation of how hard it is to for citizens to access government data.”
7. GIS data and private sector data have a lot of potential to address local data needs
Ms. Kalpana Shrestha, a representative of District Saving and Credit Cooperative Association, gave an example of how when she was abroad she was able to use google map to navigate from one place to another. She suggested the provincial and sub-metropolitan government to come up with plans so that every person can benefit from and use public data. Similarly, Niraj Shrestha, an IT professional, asked why the provincial government does not use private sector data? In his view, the private sector produces a plethora of data, but the government failure to work as a custodian of data has discouraged the private sector to disclose data.In the case of Hetauda, the Sub-Metropolitan city has already started working to create digital city profiles and produce GIS data. The Deputy-Mayor’s commitment to publish these data through a digital platform and make these data available in the machine-readable format was indeed encouraging.
In conclusion, the infographic exhibition highlighted once more the need to increase people’s understanding about data and its importance and subsequently their understanding of open data. Mr. Santosh Gartaula, CEO at Bikas Udhyami, pointed out gradual change in the mindset of the government officials these days in understanding the importance of digital, machine readable data. “When we started working with government officials at the federal, provincial and local level, it was hard to explain them what digital, machine-readabledata looks like and convincing them of its importance. However, their understanding of data has increased quite significantly over the years, and the politicians and bureaucrats have now understand the urgent need for data in their respective fields” he further said.At the end of the panel discussion, Santosh Gartuala, handed over an infographic of Hetauda Sub-metropolitan city to the Deputy-Mayor.