Meeting Nepal’s Open Data Revolutionaries

Hi there! This week we’re turning to the Himalayan nation of Nepal — perhaps not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about open data pioneers — but we believe Nepal is an interesting case study in lots of ways. We’ll be looking at some of the ways that this state with young democratic institutions has been working to make government’s workings more transparent, and utilise open data to solve complex economic and social challenges against a backdrop of limited development, low rates of literacy (57%), and limited internet access (31%).

To do so, we’ll be examining a handful of emerging open data initiatives, and thinking about the interplay between the work of civil society and the state to bring Nepal into the global open data community. But before we do that, let us delve into the background and context of the information access movement in Nepal, to help us understand the critical juncture of the movement.

A Rocky History // Nepal’s Young Democracy and Freedom of Information

Nepal has had a turbulent modern history. Since 1990, the country has seen 23 changes in government, meaning the majority of government attention has been focused on the reform and transformation of political processes, rather than on transparency, citizen engagement and public accountability. As Nepal’s emerging open data report observes: “the quick succession of administrations often leaves little time for progress to be made on campaign promises and initiatives to improve governance are often short-lived”.

It was only after the country’s violent, decade-long civil war ended in 2006 that Nepal was able to tread a path towards stability, and to begin to formulate new practices to facilitate public access to data and information. In 2007, the right to information was finally enshrined as a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution — a result of nearly 17 years of advocacy led by the media and civil society in Nepal.

The National Information Commission was set up in 2009 with the mission to promote, protect and encourage proper practice of the right to information. By 2013, several open data-focused civil society organisations had been set up around Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. However, a culture of open data is something that is yet to be truly developed nationally, and the Right to Information Act is still underutilised, with many individuals still unaware that the act can be used to make far-reaching information requests of government. This, coupled with a tendency for secrecy and obstructionism within Nepalese government organisations, pose considerable barriers for access to information in Nepal. Today we take a look at three distinct case studies of open data projects within the government, civil society and media spheres in Nepal.

Lost Packages // Aid, Government, and the Push For Transparency

As part of the new nation-building process, a variety of governmental, media, and civil society stakeholders put forward an agenda for greater government transparency, seeking to lobby the new Nepalese government to place freedom of information at the core of its activities. An issue that concerned a lot of people — including donors — was the lack of transparency over the use of foreign development aid money. For the last five years, about 20 percent of Nepal’s annual budget has originated from foreign aid, and there has been very little clarity about where the money has gone. As a result, this was a strong issue to kick off the country’s push towards greater transparency!

Amidst concerns over a lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms, the Ministry of Finance launched the Aid Management Platform in 2013, an online portal to standardise and centralise information about the flow of aid in Nepal. The site publishes data in accessible and (largely) machine-readable formats alongside clear visualisations. The fact that more than 9 billion US dollars worth of projects are documented through the portal helps to illustrate its effectiveness.

The platform was instrumental in helping the Nepalese government discover that aid spending did not correlate with national priorities in their 13th Three Year Plan, enabling them to direct money towards regions and challenges that required funding most urgently. Added to this, the Development Cooperation Policy was also developed based on evidence provided by data collected through the platform. However, the platform still faces challenges in obtaining data from opaque organisations, alongside limited internal technical expertise, and notable gaps in the data that exists.

A screen grab of the Aid Management Platform

Pressure From Below // Civil Society’s Role in Supporting Transparency and Democratic Accountability

The passing of the Right to Information Act would not have been possible without sustained pressure from civil society. Over the past five years, Nepal has seen a steady increase in the number of open data advocates and initiatives coming to the fore. One of these, Open Nepal, was the first organisation set up by stakeholders interested in the possibilities of data for development. There are now several players in the space, including: Open Knowledge Nepal, Kathmandu Living Labs, Code for Nepal, Bikas Udhyami. These organisations have played an important role in Nepalese life; after the 2015 Earthquake Kathmandu Living Labs quickly got together to map Nepal after the earthquake and provided a two way communication network between earthquake survivors and relief efforts. It is now considered a shining example of the capabilities of open data during times of crisis.

Open Knowledge Nepal’s project Election Nepal is an engagement portal developed in the context of the first local elections held in twenty years, utilising data from the Nepalese Electoral Commission. The Nepalese Election Commission is a fairly reliable source of information in Nepal, even publishing some of its datasets in machine-readable XML formats. However, like several government organisations, the Electoral Commission published a vast quantity of information in raw text and numbers, making it harder for the general public to consume.

Developed out of a conversation on a Twitter thread, the Election Nepal project was built as an attempt to crowdsource information on all kinds of data related to Nepal’s local elections, and to make election data more accessible. Built in less than two weeks, the portal focuses on two major aspects: visualising election results — even at the village level — and making election datasets accessible to the general public. The site routinely publishes infographics in English and Nepali.

Home Page of the Election Nepal Portal

A Mountain to Climb // The Emergence of Data Journalism in Nepal

Data journalism is still a largely unexplored territory for the media in Nepal. Most media focus in Nepal is on events rather than investigation. However, some outlets are beginning to experiment with the production of data-led pieces. The newspaper Republica has published data visualisations illustrating the amount of aid money committed to post-earthquake reconstruction. FACTS Nepal and Graph Nepal have also produced data visualisations using this dataset.

Significant challenges still remain for journalists seeking information from the government, however. The documentary ‘Open Data: A journey of discovery in Nepal’ illustrates the struggle of a data journalist, Gyanu Sharma, trying to obtain the answer to a question about his son’s schooling. In his seemingly straightforward mission to find a good local school for his son, Sharma comes up against a series of state-imposed barriers to accessing the information he seeks.

On the Right Path // The Future of Open Data in Nepal

With civil society taking keeping up the pressure on transparency, and the media starting to get to grips with the potential of data-driven journalism, we see the potential for further open data initiatives to continue influencing the economic and political development of Nepal. The initiatives we’ve profiled have provided citizens and government institutions alike with the tools and knowledge necessary to bring about positive change, and to recover from disasters with greater agility and preparedness than ever before.

We’ll end this blog post with an important snippet of advice taken from the Open Data documentary above: if you produce data, publish it. If you have data, use it. If you don’t — demand it. We think that’s good advice for anybody and everybody.

To learn more about this topic, have a look at these:

With inputs from Nikesh Balami, Open Knowledge Nepal.

Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media are an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal .

Cover image by skp, story edited by James Marchant and Tom Ormson.