An Open Dialogue On Open Data


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11228902_10153527753441747_2144310232429274803_nIf you recall, we ran a publication on Open Data a while ago. Open data, by its very definition, is well, open. Certain data by that logic has to made publicly available to everyone to use, analyze and republish as they wish, without restriction from copyrights or other mechanisms of control.

In order to further discuss the implications and applications of Open Data, an open dialogue was held at the Sri Lanka Press Institute, organized by Transparency International Sri Lanka and Internews Network, which is a US-based News and ICT agency. The speakers for the day, apart from being well versed in the areas of Open Data, were also well-known figures.

Sriganesh Lokanathan, Nalaka Gunawardene, Sanjana Hattotuwa (L-R) Image Credits: Sam de Silva Image taken from:
Sriganesh Lokanathan, Nalaka Gunawardene, Sanjana Hattotuwa (L-R) Image Credits: Sam de Silva Image taken from

First up for the day was Nalaka Gunawardene, a well-known journalist, broadcaster, and development communicator addressing the audience on the importance of discussing open data.

“We are all born curious, but education often blunts it.”

He speaks openly about certain questions that a curious citizen in our country may ask. These questions can range from being socio-political in nature to more controversial topics but either way, the information should be available to all citizens, Nalaka explained.

The year 2015 is an important one. It signifies the end of the MDG (Millennium Development Goals), eight measurable goals that range from halving extreme poverty and hunger to promoting gender equality and reducing child mortality, by the target date of 2015 and the transition to SDG (Sustainable Development Goals), a list of 17 goals spanning a time period from 2015 to the year 2030.

“We need the right information, on the right things at the right time.”

Nalaka’s talk also touched on the new government regime and the initiative towards open data. For example, in 2013, the Open Data initiative of Government started making some official datasets freely available online. These datasets are machine-readable and can be used as such.

We need to be ready about the RTI, Nalaka says. He compares it to a water management system where the downstream area needs to have sufficient resources and infrastructure to be ready to accept the inflow of water from the opening of the floodgates. As such, is society ready for an inflow of data because of open data and RTI, he asks.

Public data is part of the common heritage of humanity, Nalaka further explains. As such, it maximizes access to human knowledge, welfare, and progress. An example of Open Data is Lankadatta, an initiative by the Department of Census and Statistics.

He also spoke about providing geospatial access to data where restricting access to detailed maps in Sri Lanka is no longer justified. For example, the war ended 6+ years ago so it’s no longer needed to keep said data closed.

With that, Nalaka’s session drew to a close.

The next speaker for the day was Sanjana Hattotuwa, Fellow TED speaking to us about open data and civil society. Sanjana, dressed in a classy red Salwar Kameez brings a whole new perspective to open data. Using examples from social media such as Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram he demonstrated how data is accessible only to those who are part of the system. For example, to access a person’s Facebook details, you need to have a Facebook account yourself. But if one can gain access to these components, then the amount of data one has access to would be phenomenal.

In addition, he also spoke about data-driven journalism, more specifically, how if you have the facts and figures, you can argue any point and win. After all, it’s in the data. His topic shifts to government examples such as the infamous 12000KG kiribath incident.

“Do not wait till the government releases the data, but rather pry open the doors, and hack it, hack it to death.”

Sanjana also spoke about Google’s own version of public data, aptly titled Google Public Data Explorer and compared it to a number of Sri Lankan Open Data initiatives such as Lankadatta, Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the Census and Statistics Department where Sanjana says, each initiative has a different data set altogether. Ideally they should be the same, but they’re not. His final few points were with regard to HDX or the Humanitarian Data Exchange, where he explains that data can be interchangeable and interoperable thereby making it easier to manipulate and identify patterns.

Next up was Sriganesh Lokanathan from LIRNEasia. His topic; Big and open data and the challenges and issues they have.

“Why big data and why now?”

There are many potential sources of big data in an economy. For example, administrative data, commercial transactions, sensors and tracking information and online activities. His primary source of data for big data is mobile; mobile data to be precise. With this data, it is even possible to graph out the population density of Colombo narrowed down to a weekday and weekend. That’s not all.They can even map out traffic and identify potential bottlenecks in the daily commute and plan out alternate routes.

With great power, comes great responsibility. So it is with big data, Sriganesh listed some of them as standardization, accountability and liability, data and analytical literacy and, of course, private sector vs. public sector focusing mainly on competitive markets and monopolies. The biggest elephant in the room; privacy.

After the session, there was a small panel discussion with regard to open data. An important question asked was whether or not we are overhyping open data? More specifically, should be we more interested in access to data rather than the data itself.

They also talk about OSM (open street maps) a project that would be very helpful in geospatial observations in order to make progress for the country’s economic development.

As with any event, there was the traditional tea break coupled with a few minutes of socializing and networking (no cables attached).

After the break, it was Eva Constantaras, a data journalist telling stories, data stories to be more precise. She connects to us via Skype. One of the key issues that she identifies is that there is data, but no way to transfer it to citizens. She runs us through the basics of data journalism and how to set up a data journalism team. Think of it as a basic walkthrough of how to tell a story using data.

The last speaker for the day was Asoka Obeysekera of Transparency International speaking to us on Open Data and Open Government. The OGP (Open Government Partnership) is a global initiative with 66 countries in 2015. This entails that each country in the Initiative would have to come up with a 2-year national action plan that also has to have feedback from civil society. Basically what the government is going to do, and by when they are going to do it. Think of it as something similar to the current president’s 100-day campaign where certain promises were made to be carried out within 100 days of him being elected as president. With the enactment of the RTI (Right To Information) act, this would increase further.

He also talks in great detail about, unlocking information streams and data journalism. If you are rigorous in your research, you can get the data you need, Asoka explains.

Asoka uses numerous examples from the government, both past, and present. All in all, he concludes, there is a certain degree of skepticism required.

With that, the dialogue came to a close. Nalaka Gunawardene was back at the podium to give out a few finishing words and commentaries. The question at that point was “what do we do from here?” It was decided that several more meetings or dialogues would be called up during the course of time to plan exactly how open data can benefit both the countries government and its citizens.

Until we meet again!


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