An early start this Monday at 6 am, for a conference call with colleagues in both Malaysia and the USA. Our time zones are 6-7 hours apart, with me in the middle, so it was late night in Washington and afternoon in Kuala Lumpur. I like this type of balancing of the timing so it just about works for all involved.

Last year November and in the months afterwards, me and my team did an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) for the Malaysian Government. It’s the third such national ODRA I’ve done for the World Bank. This week I returned to Malaysia together with my colleague Carolina Vaira to officially deliver our report to the general affairs Minister responsible for the administration modernisation planning unit (MAMPU). MAMPU is the lead agency for open data efforts in Malaysia.

The report is the culmination of a lot of work, amongst others interviewing some 45 government agencies and a few dozen non-government entities (we spoke to almost 200 people in total in a 2 week interviewing frenzy), in which we provide an overview of the current situation in Malaysia, and how conducive it is for more open data efforts. At the same time the delivery of the report is not an end-point but in itself a starting point and source of energy to decide on the next steps. An ODRA is not meant as a scorecard, but is a diagnostic tool, and its most important part isn’t the assessment itself (although it is very useful to get a good insight into the role of data inside government and in society), but the resulting list of recommendations and suggested actions.

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The printed report, and its presentation to the general affairs Minister

In that sense a critical phase now starts: working with MAMPU to select from our recommendations the steps that are opportune to do now, and finding the right willing data holding government agencies and external stakeholders to involve. That I think is also the key message of the report: most essential building blocks for open data are in place, and Malaysia is very well positioned to derive societal value from open data, but it needs more effort in weaving the relationships between government and non-government entities to ensure those building blocks are cemented together and form a whole that can indeed deliver that value.

The formal delivery of the report to the Minister took place at the University of Malaysia, as part of Malaysia Open Data Day 2017, after which I presented some of the key findings and my colleague presented some good practice examples to illustrate some of the actions we suggested.

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Data Terbuka (open data) banner, and Carolina and I on stage during Q&A

The Malaysia ODRA report is online from the World Bank website, as is a press release, and video of the entire event. My slides are embedded below.

Jom Kongsi Data! Let’s share data!

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.

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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.

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Seminar with the Minister and a 300 people audience

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.

Kuala Lumpur
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.

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Some views from Menara KL over the city.

Food
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 😉

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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.

Next steps
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.

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The MAMPU and WB team

Today a tweet from the Serbian office of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection thanked me and colleagues for promoting open data. As a result the Commissioner’s Office has launched an open data site today, on the data subdomain of their regular website, data.poverenik.rs. This is very good news, and a welcome consequence of the open data readiness assessment I did with the World Bank and the UNDP last year. In June I spoke with the Commissioner about their work, and his deputy already took an active role last December at the conference where we presented the results of the assessment.

In a press release (Serbian only), the Commissioner’s Office states that as further encouragement to the Serbian public administration, the Commissioner is opening up data concerning their own work. Thirteen data sets have been published, one of which I think is very important: the list of public institutions that fall under the freedom of information and data protection frameworks (over 11.000!). Other data published concerns the complaints about information requests and their status the office received, as well as complaints and requests concerning data protection and privacy.

With the help of civil society organisation Edukacioni Centar (whom I had the pleasure of meeting as well) the data comes with some visualizations as well, to improve the understanding of what data is now available. One allows navigating through the network of over eleven thousand institutions that fall within the scope of the Commissioner’s Office, another the status and subject of the various complaints received.

Serbian institutions(Screenshot of over 11.000 public institutions)

Steps like these I find important, where institutions such as the Information Commissioner, or here in the Netherlands the Supreme Audit Institution, lead by example. By doing that they underline the importance of transparency also to the functioning of their own institutions.

The UNDP has published the open data readiness assessment for the Krygyz Republic. From November 2014 to June 2015 I visited Kyrgyzstan three times for a week on behalf of the World Bank. In collaboration with the Kyrgyz Government and the UNDP, as well as local companies, civil society organisations and the coding community, we looked for the right starting points for open data in Kyrgyzstan, and which steps to take to get going.

The UNDP has now published the resulting report, which is embedded below. Download link here.

Last June I spent time in Serbia doing an open data readiness assessment for the World Bank. Early this month I returned to present the findings, and to mentor a number of teams at the first Serbian open data hackathon. The report I wrote is now also available online through the UNDP website.

odrareportthe printed ODRA report

The UNDP organized a conference to present the outcome of the readiness assessment and discuss next steps with stakeholders. At the conference I presented my findings to the Minister for Public Administration and Local Self Government (MPALSG), and a printed version was made available to all present.

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(l) the minister (center, me left of her) on open data (photo Ministry PALSG), (r) discussing presented app datacentar.io (photo Hakaton.rs)

At the conference the 11 teams that created open data applications at the hackathon the weekend before, called Hakaton.rs, were also presented. The hackathon took place in the recently opened StartIT Centar, a coworking space (which got funded through kickstarter). I had the pleasure to be a mentor to the teams (together with Georges and Brett from Open Data Kosovo), to channel my experience with open data communities around Europe and open data app-building in the past 8 years. The quality of the results was I think impressive, and it was the first hackathon where I saw people trying to incorporate deep-learning tech. I aim to post separately on the different applications built.

mentorMentoring during the hackathon, with Milos and Nemanja. (photo Hakton.rs)

That the hackathon was about open data was possible because five public sector institutions (Ministry for Interior, Ministry of Education, Agency for Environmental Protection, Agency for Medicines and Medical Devices, and the Public Procurement Office) have been working constructively to publish data after our first visit in June. In the coming months I hope to return to Belgrade to provide further implementation support.

The report is also embedded below:

Serbia Open Data Readiness Assessment