Open Data Philippines: Why it is dripping with pretensions

By Jose Carlos Maningat, Originally posted at Philippine Online Chronicles/Blog Watch – Open Data Philippines: Why it is dripping with pretensions

 

Sans the hype and thrill that accompanied its launch last week, the Open Data Philippines (ODP) program, may just be a relaunching of what is already there. It could even be worse – as it presents an enormous hodge-podge of already publicized data sets only laid out in a modern-themed site and dressed in obscure formats.

But before I proceed with my critique, I should state that the “launching” ODP is a welcome step towards transparency in governance. It is however a long overdue baby step which President Benigno Aquino III should have taken to ensure people’s right to information and participation in governance. It was almost three years in the making. In 2011, the Aquino government committed to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a global transparency initiative of governments. The Philippines was among the eight founding members that signed the OGP declaration. At that time, I wrote that the OGP gathering was awkward, as it was done at a time when Wikileaks revealed scathing reports on US government’s spying and low-intensity intervention programs in various countries.

The timing of the President Aquino’s launch of ODP is quite awkward too. Open Data comes to the public’s plate when reports of massive embezzlement of public funds have long soured the people’s taste, when top public officials are trading accusations of bribes and lies, when state auditors have already identified irregularities even with Aquino’s conditional cash transfer (CCT) program.

Halfway into President Aquino’s term, the public is granted access to an online tool that will supposedly improve access to sets of information that are relevant to good governance goals. The Open Data Philippines Action Plan meanwhile has yet to be finalized, three years after Open Government’s launch. Will Aquino’s Open Data still matter?

There are various tests that can be done to www.data.gov.ph to check its accessibility and relevance. But we can try the pork barrel test, perhaps the easiest test of its relevance. After all, who would want to tolerate public fund misuse even with an open data tool in place? Previously, President and his circle of spokespersons assured us that the budget will be fully transparent, and that our taxes are spent efficiently and prudently. Let’s check this claim with Open Data.

And so I clicked the “Data” menu in the website and browsed the “Public administration, budget and tax” category and voila! Not a single search result was displayed, only a gaping void of white space. I tried ticking one format and one publisher (government agency) after another to filter search, but the result is the same. As it appears, data sets on budget and taxes have yet to be loaded in the OGP website. Budget Secretary Florencio Abad must explain how invisible data sets can foster and strengthen a “culture of active citizen engagement.” Of course, Palace spokespersons would be quick to retort that there is the Budget ng Bayan portal, but then again, why not include it in Open Data Philippines?

I tried other categories, only to find out that all others are scantily dressed except for the “Economics and Labor” category. Also, data format options are too obscure for the public (Why include a handful?)  Is including ASCII, JSON, RDF and SHP formats really necessary? I am wondering if the architects of the site really wanted to make information accessible to the public or they wanted to engage users in a virtual hide and seek.

Apart from being too pretentious, technical and clunky, Open Data Philippines is close to being an online data nightmare. As a researcher on labor and economy, I usually work with data portals and spreadsheets, and I must say that it’s easier to navigate through the National Statistics Office (NSO) website than to browse information at the ODP portal. I hope ODP will approximate the World Banks’ Data Portal (www.data.worldbank.org) in terms of functionality and user-friendliness. But of course, that will happen if the Aquino government is more sincere with public data access than using public speech rhetoric.

Above all, ODP should not be a substitute for a Freedom of Information (FOI) law – something that is long overdue and sidelined by no less President Aquino himself. It should be noted that ODP is an agglomeration of pre-determined data sets – whichever the Aquino administration deems safe to publicize. Open Data will not grant the public powers to track Napoleses, presidential pork barrel expenditure, and impeachment bribes. Legislating FOI, meanwhile, provides the public a leverage to access such information wherever it is available and in whatever means possible. FOI, in this sense, should provide the overall framework for public information access. ODP is just one of the various means to access public sector information.

Isn’t it strange that the Aquino administration is so eager with Open Data and yet it cannot certify as urgent FOI? Unfortunately, we cannot pore over data.gov.ph to find the answer to that conundrum.

Screencap from data.gov.ph . Some rights reserved.

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