This blog was first published in the World Wide Web Foundation website.
In the Philippines, teachers who offer religious instruction to school children often rely on donations or even work as unpaid volunteers. But this past October, a group of ustadz – Islamic teachers – in the Southern Philippines excitedly reported that finally their salaries and uniforms would now be covered by their local government units.
For the first time ever in this province, the teachers were able to negotiate with local government officials using not complaints or pleas for understanding of their situation, but using the government’s own data to strengthen their argument – made possible by open data published proactively on a government portal.
How did they do it?
In 2011, the Department of Interior and Local Government in the Philippines issued a policy requiring local governments to publish financial information in the Full Disclosure Policy Portal. Among the documents to be published was the budgeting and utilisation of each local government’s Special Education Fund (SEF) – money allocated to supplement the needs of the public school system.
Even though nearly all local governments have complied with the policy for the past few years, little effort has been made to explain how citizens can access and use the data. As a result, the data has simply been there and left unused until one of our Open Data For Transparency partners E-NET Philippines worked to unlock its potential value.
Funded by the Southeast Asia Technology and Transparency Initiative, E-NET is a network of education reform advocates spanning the country. They recognised the value of the SEF budget data, and began educating civil society organisations on where and how to access it. They helped organisations understand each item in the data set and showed them how to analyse it, coming up with an action plan based on their conclusions.
The ustadz realised that their salaries and school uniforms could be funded using the SEF and that there were funds already available to do so. They approached members of the Local School Board which allocates and monitors the use of the SEF to make a formal funding request which was granted.
Once the ustadz realised that this form of citizen action is not only possible, but also effective, they encouraged other ustadz to do the same. This resulted in the creation of a new civil society alliance of more than a dozen organisations – the North Cotabato Federation of Madrasa Community Ustadz, which is tasked with using tools like open data to make recommendations on community education priorities – from learning materials to teaching aids.
As this experience suggests, the initial but significant outcome of opening up data sets to the public is an opportunity for citizens not only to have a glimpse of the internal workings of sometimes opaque local governments, but to influence how local government leaders allocate resources, define priorities and formulate policies. One of the very reasons why governments are reluctant to share data publicly and in open formats, is the recognition that data as a resource is powerful and political, and sharing will have the potential to distort the long-established power relationships within local governments, and between government and citizens.
Three things we’ve learned:
- Opening data will not automatically translate to use, something our research on open data in developing countries has stressed. Without citizen awareness, knowledge and understanding of the datasets that are proactively disclosed, open data will not deliver results.
- We need experts – for example academics or civil society groups – who can act as intermediaries that explain to citizens what datasets mean and how they can use it. This reinforces findings from our previous research that underlines the importance of intermediaries so that we can avoid only empowering those who are already empowered.
- When citizens become aware of and knowledgeable about the datasets that governments disclose, they are able to translate this into action. Citizens want to be able to influence decision-making in government, for example the allocation of government funds, but they need to learn open data is a way for them to do so.
If we apply these lessons, opening up datasets will lead to opening up of spaces for citizens to reclaim their role in local decision-making and agenda-setting. The Web Foundation is putting them into practice across Southeast Asia through our work at the Open Data Lab Jakarta, with projects from Nepal to Malaysia to the Philippines.
This blog has been written by Michael Cañares, our Regional Research Manager for Asia at the Open Data Lab Jakarta. To follow our progress and learn more, check out the Lab’s website and follow our Lab on Twitter @ODLabJkt.