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Open Data and Transparency: a look back at 2013

December 20, 2013

The Guardian

By Zoe Smith

Transparency may have entered the mainstream in 2013, but did it deliver on its ‘revolutionary’ promise? Zoe Smith looks back at the achievements of the movement this year.

Mexico may be heralded as one of the most advanced countries in terms of open government, but has it benefited rural areas to the same degree as it has in urban areas? Photograph: Kent Gilbert/AP

The clarion call for a “data revolution” made in the post-2015 high level panel report is a sign of a growing commitment to see freely flowing data become a tool for social change.

Web-based technology continued to offer increasing numbers of people the ability to share standardised data and statistics to demand better governance and strengthen accountability. 2013 seemed to herald the moment that the open data/transparency movement entered the mainstream.

Yet for those who have long campaigned on the issue, the call was more than just a catchphrase, it was a unique opportunity. “If we do get a global drive towards open data in relation to development or anything else, that would be really transformative and it’s quite rare to see such bold statements at such an early stage of the process. I think it set the tone for a year in which transparency was front and centre of many people’s agendas,” says David Hall Matthews, of Publish What You Fund.

This year saw high level discussions translated into commitments at the policy level. David Cameron used the UK’s presidency of the G8 to trigger international action on the three Ts (tax, trade and transparency) through the IF campaign. The pledge at Lough Erne, in Scotland, reaffirmed the commitment to the Busan open data standard as well as the specific undertaking that all G8 members would implement International Aid Transparency Index (IATI) standards by the end of 2015.

2013 was a particularly good year for the US Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which topped the aid transparency index. While at the very top MCC and UK’s DfID were examples of best practice, there was still much room for improvement. “There is a really long tail of agencies who are not really taking transparency at all, yet. This includes important donors, the whole of France and the whole of Japan who are not doing anything credible,” says Hall-Matthews.

Yet given the increasing number of emerging and ‘frontier‘ markets whose growth is driven in large part by wealth derived from natural resources, 2013 saw a growing sense of urgency for transparency to be applied to revenues from oil, gas and mineral resources that may far outstrip aid. In May, the new Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative standard (EITI) was adopted, which is said to be farbroader and deeper than its previous incarnation.

Several countries have done much to ensure that transparency leads to accountability in their extractive industries. In Nigeria, for example, EITI reports are playing an important role in the debate about how resources should be managed in the country. “In countries such as Nigeria they’re taking their commitment to transparency and EITI seriously, and are going beyond disclosing information but also ensuring that those findings are acted upon and lead to accountability. For example, the tax collection agency has started to collect more of the revenues that were previously missing,” says Jonas Moberg, head of the EITI International Secretariat.

But just the extent to which transparency and open data can actually deliver on its revolutionary potential has also been called into question. Governments and donors agencies can release data but if the power structures within which this data is consumed and acted upon do not shift is there really any chance of significant social change?

The complexity of the challenge is illustrated by the case of Mexico which, in 2014, will succeed Indonesia as chair of the Open Government Partnership. At this year’s London summit, Mexico’s acting civil service minister, spoke of the great strides his country has made in opening up the public procurement process, which accounts for around 10% of GDP and is a key area in which transparency and accountability can help tackle corruption.

There is, however, a certain paradox. As SOAS professor, Leandro Vergara Camus, who has written extensively on peasant movements in Mexico, explains: “The NGO sector in Mexico has more of a positive view of these kinds of processes than the working class or peasant organisations. The process of transparency and accountability have gone further in urban areas then they have in rural areas.”

Earlier this year an OECD report hailed Mexico as “one of the most advanced countries in the world in enhancing access to information and promoting an open government”. Such a description sits somewhat awkwardly alongside the Human Rights Watch description of the “climate of violence and impunity” that exists in many parts of the country amid a climate in which some civil society organisations are facing human rights challenges.

Undoubtedly Mexico’s recent commitment to ensure that it “plays a substantial role in shaping the priorities and the way of doing business of the OGP” is to be commended. There are countless civil society organisations in Mexico but, as in many countries, the these actors struggle to maintain autonomy from the government.

As Vergara-Camus cautions, “the complexity of delivering transparency and accountability depends a great deal on the presence or absence of independent, and I stress the independent, civil society organisations and social movements.”

With increasing numbers of organisations likely to jump on the transparency bandwagon in the coming year the greatest challenge is using it effectively and adequately addressing the underlying issues ofpower and politics.

Top 2013 transparency publications

Open data, transparency and international development, The North South Institute

Data for development: The new conflict resource?, Privacy International

The fix-rate: a key metric for transparency and accountability, Integrity Action

Making UK aid more open and transparent, DfID

Getting a seat at the table: Civil Society advocacy for budget transparency in “untransparent” countries, International Budget Partnership

The dates that mattered

23-24 May: New Extractive Industries Transparency Index standard adopted

30 May: Post 2015 high level report calling for a ‘data revolution’ is published

17-18 June: UK premier, David Cameron, campaigns for tax, trade and transparency during the G8

24 October: US Millenium Challenge Corporation tops the aid transparency index

30 October – 1 November: Open Government Partnership in London gathers civil society, governments and data experts

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