Data to change the world

March 28, 2017
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Two hands holding a mobile phone

IDRC / Minzayar Oo

Open data could improve communications.

Naël Shiab

"In the Ivory Coast, when a woman leaves home to give birth, her relatives start to mourn immediately because they don't know if the mother or baby will return alive," begins Nnenna Nwakanma, the Africa Regional Coordinator at Web Foundation. "Will there be room at the hospital? Will there be medicine? Will there even be an obstetrician on duty? This woman doesn't know these things, and when she arrives, it's sometimes too late to go to another institution. But if institutions were connected and shared their information, she would know which institution to go to. With open data, we can save lives."

In the immense hall of a Madrid conference centre, assembly members are dumbstruck. Over one thousand bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, activists, programmers, and journalists have gathered in the Spanish capital for the October 2016 International Open Data Conference; they are convinced they can contribute to building a better world with open data. And now, from the stage, in her colourful, draped traditional dress, Nnenna Nwakanma has just made the most impassioned plea possible.

Open data: we use it daily without realizing it. We check the weather forecast or plan our next trip using our smart phone, for example. Accessible to all and infinitely shareable, open data simplifies our lives. This is nothing extraordinary—at first glance.

But around the world, “citizen-geeks” have decided to make this seemingly innocuous accessibility concept into a fantastic tool for social transformation. Open data now forces states to be accountable, exposes corrupt businesses and improves people's lives.

As public interest guerrillas, followers of this digital philosophy try to free data stored on their government's servers and use it for the common good. This is the case for Abram Huyser-Honig, who until recently worked for the Honduras chapter of Transparency International, a non-profit organization that fights corruption. In a hall at a Madrid convention centre, a few dozen people attend his presentation. The young man explains how he uncovered a fraudulent drug supply system in Central America. "The government has an annual budget of about $40 million and it publicly discloses its purchases," he explains, as his notes stream behind him on a screen. "But calls for tenders and invoices are in different pro-formas, which makes an overview impossible."

With his colleagues from the Association para una sociedad más justa, a non-profit organization  in Honduras, he has joined the tedious task of downloading, sorting, standardizing, and analyzing documents since 2004. They discovered that the company Astropharma, which had no state contract before 2009, suddenly began to rake in millions of dollars in subsequent years. They looked into this and found that the company was owned by the Congress vice-president, Lena Gutierrez, who had entered politics in...2009. After these revelations, demonstrations shook the country, whose eight million people have very limited health care access. The case is now before the courts. Meanwhile, Huyser-Honig has published all of the sorted data on the Web. Now, with a simple click, anyone can download an Excel file, see the smallest operation, and perhaps even discover additional fraud. In the community's jargon, this is called "data liberation."

The doctrine's disciples want a world based on transparency, where everyone has the power to question established authority. The goal is not to blast the government as would an opposition party; instead, it is to help it function better for the common good. "We must change leaders' mentality and push them towards openness," says Ania Calderón, General Director at the Office of the President of Mexico. "An informed and engaged citizen ought to be a government's best ally. Because, let's be honest, a government will never be able to battle corruption or global warming on its own." Furthermore, this "data liberation" initiative is intimately linked to the nature of the Web. What better way than the Internet to distribute information without censorship or discrimination?

Whenever an elected official in the West travels at the expense of the state, or a doctor is paid by taxpayers, or a police officer draws up a ticket, it's all recorded in gigantic databases updated by public authorities. Digital activists believe that all citizens should have access to this data directly from their Web browser. Is your elected representative being reimbursed for leisure travel? Does your family doctor prescribe more antibiotics than his or her colleagues? Do your neighbourhood police practice racial profiling? With open data, the answers to these questions would only be a few clicks away. What's more, solutions could be proposed that come from civil society.

In an ideal world, the authorities would publish their own data. In France, for example, since October 6, municipalities with more than 3,600 inhabitants are obliged to do so. "The challenge is enormous, but, in our country, we have a stake in transparency that dates back to the Revolution," explains Jean-Marie Bourgogne, President of Open Data France. "Even then, an article in the Déclaration des droits de l’homme (Declaration of Human Rights), stated that any citizen could hold the state accountable. This notion of responsibility is over 200 years old." But are states prepared to publicize information that could potentially get them into trouble? France recently made great strides towards being more open—but only after stumbling.

In 2011, the French Parliament decided to force pharmaceutical companies to report all gifts and contracts awarded to healthcare professionals, doctors, surgeons and nurses. This information was supposed to be posted on a public website accessible to everyone. But two years later, the result was disappointing. François Massot, of Regards Citoyens (an association of engineers and computer scientists), attended the Madrid conference. "The website only showed the value of the gifts," he says. "It was very limited. We could only search using one doctor's name at a time. At that point, some health sector actors called to us for help."

Massot is a developer. "We programmed customized software that automatically extracted and reorganized all the site's information. It took us two years." But this painstaking work eventually paid off. In April 2015, Massot and his colleagues liberated the entire database on the Regards Citoyens website. They exposed the extent of the links between health professionals and pharmaceutical laboratories: in two and-a-half years, pharmaceutical companies had distributed 2.5 million gifts, for a total value of EUR 245 million. And that's probably just the tip of the iceberg: during the same period, 235,000 contracts were awarded for amounts that remain unknown. "We are very proud that citizens, journalists, and politicians re-used our data," states Massot. "The debate is back on the public stage."

A series of similarly inspiring examples emerged throughout the sessions, workshops, and presentations at the International Open Data Conference (see below, "Geeks and Canadians"). Oludotun Babayemi, 34, is co-founder of Follow the Money Nigeria. He explains how he uses his country's budget data along with international assistance open data to make sure that pledged money is indeed used in the neediest villages. Kirikowhai Mikaere, of New Zealand, detailed the plan of the Maori: they wish to produce their own open data to raise the central government's awareness of their challenges, and organize data schools so that future generations can make well-informed decisions. Jameson Lopez, a Kwat’san tribe member and doctoral student at Arizona State University, has created a more accurate census method for First Nations in the U.S., who are often invisible in official statistics because of their small numbers. Instead of being identified based on their place of residence, he proposes doing so based on hereditary and cultural links.

How many failures have there been for each of these inspiring successes? In August, the Australian Government published a database of medical claims made by about 2 million people from 1984 to 2014. The claims included treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and abortions, for example. Though this was highly confidential information, the government hoped to benefit from collective intelligence to pinpoint healthcare system problems that its officials would have missed. Out of respect for privacy, the Department of Health removed the names of patients, doctors, and institutions. This information was replaced using software that randomly selected identifiers.

However, in September, three computer science researchers from the University of Melbourne decided to test the effectiveness of these anonymization methods. In three days, they found a loophole and were able to re-identify the doctors. They alerted the government, which immediately withdrew the database that had already been downloaded 1,500 times by researchers and insurance companies, but also by totally unknown sources. The Privacy Act was amended to prohibit re-identification, but experts have questioned the effectiveness of such a measure.

So, how do we protect people's privacy while respecting their right to information? "This is made all the more problematic by the fact that governments use this grey area to avoid being accountable," says Helen Darbishire, Executive Director of Access Info Europe. She recently asked the European Commission for the list of all travel and accommodation expenses claimed by commissioners. The institution provided her with all of the details—except the politicians' names! "Officials told me that this information was personal, and the problem is, they are theoretically right. But where is the line between private and public life?"

The question becomes even more complex when you add the right to be forgotten. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union granted this right to Europeans on the Web. Specifically, they can require Google, for example, to exclude some sites from search results based on their name. The goal is to prevent search engines from posting personal information that is inaccurate, personally harmful, or of no interest to the public. But should this right be granted when it comes to open data?

"This very important issue is now before European courts," says Krzysztof Izdebski, 35, who works for EPF Foundation, a Polish organization that promotes citizen engagement. Italian businessman Salvatore Manni, whose company went bankrupt in 1995, is at the heart of this debate. More than 20 years later, details about him are still posted in his region's business register, accessible to all. Private companies organize, analyze, and then sell this data. Manni says this has caused him suffering and is requesting that his information be erased or anonymized.

"This type of case can wipe out all of the openness progress made in recent years," states Izdebski. "Imagine if a former far-right candidate defeated in an election 20 years ago asks that his data be erased and, the following year, he runs for the Green Party. Is that a privacy issue? My answer is no. It is an issue of public responsibility." And how do we apply such a measure if the data has already been downloaded by thousands of anonymous people?

"We believe that open data has the potential to improve people's lives. How? That's still not very clear," notes Naser Faruqui, Director of Technology and Innovation at Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a co-organizer of the Conference. "There is huge potential for transparency in public institutions and democratic governance. But we must not forget the gigantic quantities of data private companies hold," he stresses. "We must also think about measures that will encourage them to liberate data."

For instance, he mentions Sri Lanka, where IDRC conducted a program with cell phone companies. Launched in March 2015, this two-year program has a $725,000 budget. "We help them implement privacy guiding principles in exchange for anonymized phone tracking data. This information allowed us to study and improve street traffic in the capital of Colombo. Government data is only part of the equation."

Companies also use open data to do business. In the United States, companies download real estate data, which they then process, analyze and resell to agencies. "These companies are worth more than $1 billion as we speak," says Faruqui.

Over the past few years, Canada, Quebec, and some cities have set up open data portals where people can download all kinds of information and use it as they please. "One of my favorite examples," says Ashley Casovan, the lead for Canada's Open Government Portal, "is an application that was created to help newcomers choose the best city to settle in. The application asks them questions and then determines the municipalities that suit them best based on cultural communities, language, climate, city size and activities. When they arrive, new residents are connected to on-site services thanks to the application. It uses open data from 14 government departments and agencies."

In 2016, the federal government also compiled a vast inventory of all its databases—a first! In the coming months, Casovan and her team will invite Canadians to vote on which data to liberate.

"Closure and secrecy can constitute great risks for society," says Mar Cabra, the head of the Data and Research Unit at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in Washington. Originally from Spain, she worked for months on the Panama Papers scandal. In 2015, an anonymous source handed the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung millions of documents belonging to the Panamanian law firm of Mossack Fonseca, which revealed hundreds of thousands of offshore companies and their owners. "We found companies that were on the United States' blacklist for having financed terrorist organizations, for instance. Nonetheless, they had been active in that country thanks to bank secrecy."

A few months later, there was a new document leak, this time from the Bahamas. An anonymous source handed the Süddeutsche Zeitung a record of all companies registered in that tax haven, along with their directors' names. "Most notably, we discovered that Neelie Kroes, the European Union's Commissioner for competition [2004 to 2010] and Commissioner for Digital Agenda [2010 to 2014], had served on the board of directors of the Bahamian company Mint Holdings from 2000 to 2009. This company was set up to acquire assets in the energy sector. Commissioners must declare this kind of activity—only she did not, which is very serious. If the registry had been open, it would not have happened that way," says Cabra. Since then, the data has been liberated and is available on the Consortium's website.

Are we asking a bit too much of open data? Is it really the digital panacea of the 21st century? "To be honest, the objectives we set for ourselves make me anxious," conceded Karin Christiansen, Board Chair of Open Knowledge and a founder of Publish What You Fund, in her address to hundreds of Open Data Conference participants. "I don't know if we'll get there. Open data does not reduce poverty or fight corruption. People who use open data, though, can make a difference." You, dear readers, are those people.

Geeks and Canadians

More than one thousand computer scientists, politicians, bureaucrats, heads of non-profit foundations and organizations participated in the International Open Data Conference in Madrid in October 2016.

"The potential for open data is there. There is evidence that they can improve people's lives by providing more transparency and obligating states to be accountable," says Naser Faruqui, Director of Technology and Innovation at Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). "We believe that there are also economic growth and business opportunities in those countries."

The World Bank, the Spanish government and IDRC are the three main organizers of the International Open Data Conference (the 2015 meeting was held in Ottawa).

As a Canadian Crown corporation created in 1970 by an act of  Canada’s Parliament, IDRC funds research and programs for the economic advancement of developing countries.

It also leads the Global Partnership on Open Data for Development, which has a $2.5 million budget.

It supports open data experiments in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America so that people in less affluent countries can also be among those benefiting from an increasingly digital world. "Our vision is that knowledge and innovation can provide solutions to improve the lives of people in developing countries," explains Faruqui.

Naël Shiab attended the International Open Data Conference in Madrid from October 4 - 7. He was invited by Canada's International Development Research Centre, a co-organizer of the conference.

This article was originally published in the December 2016 edition of the magazine L'Actualité.