The past 12 days I was in Malaysia on mission for the World Bank and Malaysia’s Administrative Modernisation planning unit (MAMPU). Malaysia is pushing forward both on Big Data and Open Data initiatives, and I was there to do an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) to help point to the logical and most promising steps to take, in order to unlock the full potential of open data. The ODRA was the result of conversations I had with MAMPU when I visited Malaysia last year as member of the Malaysian Big Data Advisory Panel.
A marathon of meetings
Over the course of my visit we met with representatives of over 70 organisations, ministries, departments and agencies (2/3 government), and some of those organisations several times, usually for 1 hour or 90 minute sessions. All of these focused on the federal level (Malaysia is a kingdom with a federal structure). In all these meetings we were trying to understand the way the Malaysian government works, and how data plays a role in that. From the output, using the ODRA methodology, we assess the logical and possible steps for Malaysia to take towards more open data.
One of the many meetings we had
Formal launch with the Minister
The first two days were filled with meetings with civil society, the private sector and academia. The third day we met with the Minister for Administrative Modernisation responsible for MAMPU, which in turn is the responsible agency running the open data efforts. Together we officially launched the ODRA effort in attendance of the press and some 300 representatives of various civil society, business and government organisations. The Minister pointed to the value of open data in light of Malaysia’s development goals in his opening speech. After a little exercise, by my WB colleague Carolina from Washington, to gauge the opinions in the room on the value of open data to help move to a more informal exchange of ideas, I gave a presentation to show how open data creates value, what ensures open data success and how the ODRA will help find the right ‘hooks’ to do that. The Q&A that followed showed the strong interest in the room, and also the commitment of the Minister and MAMPU as both he and MAMPU’s DG got involved in the discussion.
Result driven and diverse
Malaysia strikes me as a country with lots of diversity, and as very result driven. That diversity was further emphasized while reading the very beautiful book Garden of the Evening Mists by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, but is also visible in every meeting we had, and every little walk I took through the city. The public sector is driven by KPI’s and in general everything is very much progress and future oriented. That has yielded impressive results, such as removing poverty in just generation, and now walking the path to be a high-income country by 2020. At the same time, all those KPI’s can generate a lack of focus (if everything is a priority, nothing really is) and can create blind spots (softer aspects such as the quality of interaction between government and the public) because it is harder to quantify.
Last year I was only visiting for 2 days or so, and had no time to see more of my surroundings. This time I was here for a week and a half, although most of those days were very busy. Some of the evenings, and during the weekend however my WB colleagues Rob (based in KL) and Carolina go to explore the city a bit, and enjoyed the great food. I spend a few hours visiting the Menara Kuala Lumpur, a telecommunications tower that has an observation deck providing a great view from 300m up over the city. With 5 million people it is a sprawling city over a large area (we commuted everyday from the hotel to MAMPU offices, 35kms away, all within the city), and the view from the tower showed me how extended that area really is.
Already last year what stood out for me is that food is important in Malaysia, and is offered at every opportunity, even during every meeting. Also the variety of cuisines on offer is great, from all over Asia, as well as western and Latin American. MAMPU arranged great Malaysian food for breakfast and lunch, during the intensive days of interviews, allowing me to indulge in all the great tastes and enjoying the spicyness. Off hours Rob took us to several places, Malaysian, Mexican, Spanish-Japanese, Korean, and Peruvian. I also sampled some of the fine Chinese restaurants. Sunday evening we enjoyed a great open air diner on the 24th (or 23A, as in Malaysian 4 sounds like death), overlooking KLCC park at sunset, and seeing the lights come on in the iconic Petronas towers. I arrived home with a little more baggage then I left with, so part of the aftermath of my visit is not just writing the report, but also losing that additional weight 😉
From the open 24th floor of one of the Troika towers, enjoying Peruvian food, watching the sun set and lights come on in Petronas Towers. In the background Menara KL from which I had a great view over the city earlier that day.
The coming weeks we’ll go through all the material we’ve collected in our meetings and during our desk research. From it a report will result that is action oriented to help MAMPU drive open data forward, and use it as a tool to attain the development goals Malaysia has set for itself. Most of the necessary building blocks are in place, but those blocks are all in their own silos and generally not connected. Likely most of the suggested actions will be about creating the connections between those building blocks and work on the quality of relationships between stakeholders and the awareness of how open data can be a tool for both the public and for the public sector. I am grateful to the great MAMPU and WB team for our collaboration these past days and the hospitality they have shown me.