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Taiwan, Hong Kong: Will Open Data Support Democracy?

0 Comments19 December 2014

ODN in China

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This post originally appeared on the blog of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

 The People’s Republic of China and its neighbors provide a kind of natural experiment in Open Data policy. China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are all beginning to release and use more open government data in new ways, despite the differences in their governmental structures. On my recent trip, I was fortunate enough to visit and meet with leaders on information policy in all three. I wrote recently about the growth of Open Data in China. This report describes new developments in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A recent report from Open Knowledge, which analyzed the potential for Open Data across Asia, notes that countries generally adopt Open Data policies in the hope of encouraging better government, economic growth, or both. Some data, like data on government spending or officials’ salaries, helps ensure that government is transparent and accountable. But other kinds of Open Data, like data on weather, energy, transportation, finance, or other sectors measured by the government, are raw material for businesses of all kinds to use. In both Taiwan and Hong Kong, Open Data serves a combination of economic and good-government goals.

Taiwan has had a government data portal since 2011. In addition to holding thousands of datasets, it has an unusually user-friendly, conversational interface (use an online translator to see it in English). As the Open Knowledge report points out, the government was criticized after a 2009 typhoon for being unprepared and responding poorly. As a result, the Taiwan government has released a lot of data for disaster prevention and response, in addition to data on weather, real estate, and more.

A 2009 typhoon spurred the release of data for disaster response.

The country’s high-tech culture is now helping to advance data-driven innovation. Taiwan is one of the world’s largest producers of electronic equipment, and the Taipei Computer Association (TCA) represents thousands of members in the ICT industries. On October 24, the TCA and the government’s Industrial Development Bureau co-hosted the 2014 International Open Data Forum in Taipei, where I was invited to give a keynote (scroll down atthis link for an English-language description). The conference, which included leaders from France and Korea as well as Taiwan and Beijing, covered a number of ways that Open Data is becoming a resource for businesses around the world.

In Taiwan, business leaders are urging the government to make more data more available more quickly. One of the most prominent is Chi-Ming Peng, founder and CEO of WeatherRisk, a Taipei-based company that provides weather forecasts for the media. (A former meteorology professor, he now doubles as a TV weathercaster himself.) A year ago, Peng became the founding chairman of the Open Data Alliance in Taiwan, which works with the government to make more data open and usable.

Models for engagement: Open Data Alliance and Code for Tomorrow

Taiwan has had a strong tradition of press freedom since the 1990s, and that openness is now reflected in its approach to data and information. The country enacted its Freedom of Government Information Law in 2005 (Hong Kong has no such legislation). The Taiwan Open Data movement began a few years later. TH Schee, who heads the organization Code for Tomorrow, has counted more than 200 Open Data community events in the last few years; his organization focuses on applying open data to local projects.

Taiwan now has an active dialogue between government data-providers and the data-users represented by the Open Data Alliance and Code for Tomorrow. This model, where government agencies work together with NGOs and the business community, could be a model for Open Data programs in other countries as well. Even so, Taiwan faces the same challenge that many other countries do: The organizations that could do the most with government data may not know what’s available. At Taiwan’s Tunghai University, Professor Jing Shiang has done a survey of open data awareness and use within Taiwan’s NGOs. He found that only 40 percent now know about the government’s programs to distribute Open Data, and only 6 percent are using it.

Hong Kong, like Taiwan, has strong technology resources, and its government data programs have developed over the same time period as Taiwan’s. In 2011 Hong Kong launched itsData.one portal, a government resource with a wide range of data and information on weather, traffic, demographics, crime, charitable organizations, and more – all available in English as well as Chinese. At the same time, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is discussing ways to make all public government information more open and usable, with leadership from Charles Mok, who serves as the Council’s expert on information technology.

Next step: Ensure that data is not only available, but is widely used.

Since 2011 the Hong Kong government has staged competitions for the best apps to be made with government data, and has generated useful applications of traffic, weather, air pollution, and other datasets. At the same time, a number of groups have sprung up to advocate for better access to data and work on new ways to apply it. When I visited Hong Kong I met with Open Data Hong Kong, an organization with more than 400 members; Good Lab, a tech-focused hub for new social ventures and projects; and Code4HK, inspired by Code for America, which applies data and app development to social change.

A next step in both Taiwan and Hong Kong is to ensure that data is not only available, but is widely used. The months ahead will show whether data-providers and data-users can work together to create a vibrant Open Data system.

- Joel Gurin, founder and editor, OpenDataNow.com

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