Open Data can provide great opportunities to Oman. The government has massive amounts of data about all aspects of life in the country that remain stored without ever getting used or, at best, remain constantly under-utilised.
As part of its normal way of conducting business, the government collects and creates a lot of information. This information includes basic details about the number of accidents that happen on the road, what time of the day they happened, and their exact location; the number of schools in the country, the number and age of students attending these schools; the number of mosques in each city; the locations of hospitals, forecast details, and so many other details about everything in the country.
The government collects and creates this data because it needs to do so to perform its job in providing public services and utilities. Once that service is done, the data collected gets stored in box files and hard drives that rarely get used again. The government and society can gain a lot of benefits if this data is released to the public instead of letting it go to waste. For this data to be beneficial it should be released as “Open Data” that is technically and legally open.
Making government data open does not mean that the government should make all of its information public. Confidential and sensitive information should not be released to the public, but government employees need to stop treating all government information as confidential data. A law was passed in 2011 to regulate what is classified as confidential and what is not, this law is unfortunately not used and the majority of government employees are not aware of its existence. Basically, according to this law an item would be classified if it affects the security of the state, its economic interests, or relates to employee affairs or purely administrative matters. Other than that, all normal information about activities that the government does should not be classified and may be released without restrictions.
There are many benefits that the government can gain by making its data open. It will be more efficient for the government to share information between its bodies if this data was open and accessible to other government employees directly instead of having to go through hoops of bureaucracy to get a simple piece of information. Open Data is also great for transparency and it can help the State Audit and the Shura Council have an easier job identifying corruption and holding the government accountable. Businesses, including SMEs, can also make better business judgments if they had more information to examine before starting a new venture. (For example, a person starting a new business can have a better estimate of potential customers if he sets up business near a school or a hospital and had access to the number of students or patients that go there).
Here is a more practical example: If Royal Oman Police released all the data about road accidents in Oman in an Open Data standard, it will be extremely easy for anyone to analyse this data to determine what time of the day accidents take place and in what specific areas of the country. If we see hard evidence that there are more accidents on the Muscat Express Way between 4pm and 6pm on a Thursday, a lot of people might make a decision to take the Sultan Qaboos Highway at that time instead even if that means they will be stuck traffic and that could have a direct impact on their lives safety.
Technically and Legally Open
There are already a number of initiatives in Oman and the region for “Open Data”, however, it seems clear that the governments in Gulf do not understand what “Open” means. Releasing random chunks of data on a website does not make that data “Open”. In order for society to be able to make use of data, this data needs to be “technically” and “legally” open.
Data can be made open technically if it is made available in bulk, in an open, machine readable format. ROP at the moment releases information about road accidents, but this data is released in periodic updates on Facebook and Twitter with no easy way of collecting all the data in one go. ROP also releases the information in picture files that do not allow the user to copy the data or process it using a specialised application. For ROP to make its road accidents data technically open it should make the whole data available in something like CSV or XML so that it can used and repurposed easily.
Data also needs to be legally open. Omani copyright law makes all works created by the government, and everyone else, automatically protected by copyright. This means that even though data is found on some government websites, copying or using that data without permission is illegal. Overcoming this problem is not as simple as going to the government to ask them for their permission to use the data because government employees do not understand what copyright is and there is no system in place for them to process a request for someone asking for a copyright clearance. The easiest way for making data legally open is by adopting an open license that allows users to do anything they want with the data. According to the guidelines of the Open Definition, the only restrictions that may be imposed on open data is the requirement to attribute the source and share any derivative works using the same terms as the original material.
It is possible for the government to legally open up its data by either creating its own open license or adopting an off the shelf license such as those made by the Creative Commons. It is unlikely that drafting an Omani open license instead of adopting a Creative Commons license would have any significant advantages, on the contrary, adopting a Creative Commons license will be more efficient and could ensure greater compatibility with ShareAlike requirements.
State of Open Data in Oman
Oman was ranked at number 100 on the Open Data Global Index for 2014 making it one of the 10 least open countries on this census. Oman does have some data initiatives such as the open data page of the ITA and the work of the NCSI. The ITA’s portal was clearly made with good intentions, but the execution is extremely lacking. The biggest problem with it is that the data is protected by copyright and cannot be used. A more practical problem is that there is no evidence that this portal has been ever updated after it was launched.
Releasing government data is not necessarily an expensive project. It is not necessary to use advanced tools or build fancy portals. The government has no shortage of staff and the data is already available. All that is needed is the will to take this project seriously by creating a plan for training government employees and getting the data out there in a open format and using an open license.
The NCSI is probably a more appropriate body to lead the government Open Data initiative instead of the ITA. NCSI used to have a “coming soon” section for open data on their website, but it is not there anymore, which is probably not a great sign. But lets hope that they are still working on it.