Taking Advantage of Open Data to Foster Innovation, Transparency and Civic Participation in Myanmar

Yan Naung Oak explains the current and future uses of open data in Myanmar

This post is part of Tea Circle’s “Year in Review” series, which looks back at developments in different fields over the last year.

In May 2015, I attended a talk given by a group of Indonesian technologists. They told the story of how President Joko Widodo won the 2014 elections with the help of hundreds of volunteers who, armed with mobile phones, fought against voter fraud. It was a crowdsourcing campaign that enabled anyone with an internet connection to upload election results directly from polling stations. In a close election in which both Jokowi and his rival were declaring victory, citizens equipped with technology and data made a real difference. I was incredibly moved by that story, and thought about how amazing it would be if the same thing could happen in Myanmar. I quickly dismissed those thoughts as wishful thinking, only to find myself a few months later in the midst of a similar project that would help voters in Myanmar through technology and data, as they took to the polls for the most important election the country has seen in decades.

Things move very quickly in today’s Myanmar. Out of the many changes that are shifting the country’s political, economic and social fabric, two particular transformations are important to highlight: First, the unprecedented pace of mobile phone and smartphone adoption that followed the liberalisation of the telecoms market, and second, the reforms in the media sector that have significantly reduced the draconian limitations on press freedoms. In 2010, we were a country that read newspapers only for the obituaries because everything else in them was propaganda. Two years later, in 2012, truthful and honest journalism was suddenly no longer followed by a prison sentence (most of the time), and dozens of new, independent media outlets were established. Three years after that, in 2015, everyone was getting their news (both real and fake) on their smartphones from whatever was trending on Facebook. A public sphere, one that had not existed since our grandparents’ time, seemed to have appeared overnight – and just as suddenly, it had leapfrogged into the internet era.

What will it take to build resilient democratic institutions in this rapidly changing space? I believe that a citizenry equipped with technology and data is a crucial part of that answer. My work at Phandeeyar, an innovation lab in downtown Yangon, has given me the chance to observe some of these changes quite closely. The organisation was founded in 2014, specifically to use information and communications technology to accelerate the change-agents that were driving the country forward – the entrepreneurs, technologists, civil society organisations, and independent media. The elections in 2015 were a great test case for using technology to foster social impact.

Alongside The Asia Foundation and many other groups, Phandeeyar was involved in organising the Mae Pay Soh voter education project. It was an effort to collect, digitise and open up data about candidates and parties to the public, in conjunction with a competition for local technologists to develop apps and other digital tools to use that data to educate voters on issues ranging from voting procedures to profiles of candidates. 137 participants formed 30 different teams to take part in the 2-week competition. The winning team’s mobile app, mVoter, was built by a team of young software developers who were in their early twenties. Their app was widely publicised prior to the elections and was downloaded more than a quarter of a million times. It provided valuable information for voters who accessed the database millions of times in the lead up to the elections. The Myanmar public was incredibly proud of the young technologists who took part in the competition and it demonstrated that there was plenty of homegrown talent who were eager to do their part in the country’s transformation.

This was all possible, of course, because the government agreed to open up this data to the public. Even though the Union Election Commission had been very supportive of the project from the get go, it was still an arduous task to take what had been a thoroughly analog process and digitise it. The process illustrated the extent to which simple things that are taken for granted in other countries can be significant hurdles in Myanmar. Six thousand candidates registered for the elections, and did so by filling out paper registration forms in various towns across the country. They were then all faxed to the Election Commission’s headquarters in Naypyitaw. These forms then needed to be sorted and categorized. Enter the Ministry of Education’s “alphabetisation experts”, who were tasked with the esoteric job of sorting the forms of the candidates in alphabetical order. Sorting in Burmese is not something that a normal Burmese speaker can easily do since the script has 33 consonants, 11 medials, 32 finals, 4 tones, and many other nuances. On top of that, older dictionaries use a different sorting method from the more modern ones. Hence the need for alphabetisation experts. After the experts had sorted all the candidate registration forms, a cadre of typists painstakingly entered the information from the forms into a computer, where they encountered another choice between competing standards, between the infamous local Zawgyi encoding system and global standard Unicode encoding system (in addition to the other older Burmese fonts that the Union Election Commission continued to use). It took weeks of work to finally produce a database that had all the candidates’ information and was accessible online by the public.

Open data is data that anyone can access, use or share. The simple definition belies the immense value that it can provide. Globally, it is estimated that business opportunities made possible through open data can create a market value of US$3 to 5 trillion a year. In terms of intangible benefits, it is one of the main pillars for ensuring transparency and accountability from governments and other institutions in today’s complex world. In order to fully reap these benefits, opening up the data is only the first step. Technologists need to have civic values that induce them to use their skills for positive social impact, as well as have an understanding of the needs of users to create tools that make the data usable and understandable. Civil society and media also have to become skilled in using technology and data. Last but not least, governments must also commit to releasing data, and also to incorporate insights from data into their decision-making. On all these fronts, Myanmar has a long way to go, but as the example above demonstrates, there are small, positive signs amidst the drastic changes taking place in the country.

There are now a handful of organisations in Myanmar dedicated to promoting the use of open data. Phandeeyar’s own open data portal called Open Development Myanmar, the Myanmar Information Management Unit, the Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation, and the One Map Myanmar Project are all working towards greater accessibility of open data and also working to promote data literacy in civil society, government and media. Some civil society organisations specialise in collecting data related to a specific topic. For example, the Open Myanmar Initiative collects all available public data about the Myanmar parliament, such as questions, motions, and the passage of bills. Philanthropic and development assistance funds are also increasingly being directed at promoting the use of open data as a crucial part of improving transparency and accountability, and also at improving data driven decision-making within government.

Until recently, it was almost impossible to get formal training as a journalist in Myanmar. With the media landscape opening up over the past few years, many are now eager to join the profession. Formerly exiled media such as The Irrawaddy, DVB, and Mizzima, have started operating within the country once again. New dailies and weeklies have emerged, joining the competition for readership and advertising. However, paid readership has decreased every year as the tradition of buying newspapers has rapidly been replaced by the consumption of free news via social media. The advertising market is still not a large enough revenue source in an emerging market like Myanmar. Amateur journalists, tough competition, and dwindling revenues do not make for a healthy market for independent media, and the alarming number of journalists recently being prosecuted under the much despised 66D defamation clause has not helped. And yet, despite all these difficulties, I believe it is crucial that journalists in Myanmar pick up some data literacy skills.

All over the world, in both developed and developing countries, independent media is facing similar sets of challenges to the ones described above (although Myanmar’s challenges do seem more intractable than others’). Many newsrooms have taken on the task of reinventing themselves to innovate their way through the challenges. La Nación from Argentina and Indiaspend from India are examples of media that have focused on data journalism in order to set themselves apart from the competition, and this has made them leading news outlets in data journalism in South America and South Asia respectively. Small, dedicated teams of journalists can have a big impact if they have the skills to analyse government budgets, election results, census and municipal data to inform the public with evidence based reporting on issues such as corruption and effectiveness of policies. Journalists from La Nación, for example, worked together with technologists to create a database of leaked documents from 26,000 emails to report on corruption, and a similar tool to sieve through 90,000 poll worker reports to check for election irregularities.

But perhaps most importantly, the success of open data in Myanmar hinges on the government’s attitude towards it. Open-washing is a phrase used to describe situations where institutions pay lip service to open data as a public relations move. This might involve releasing some datasets while restricting access to other crucial datasets that might be politically sensitive, or releasing data that is incomplete, inaccurate, too aggregated (i.e. summarised very broadly, without being broken down into finer details) or otherwise not useful; for example, when the 2014 Myanmar census data on religion was finally released in 2016 after being delayed for a year, it turned out that the data was only disaggregated to the state or region level, unlike the rest of the census data, which was available down to the level of townships, and in the case of population figures, even down to the village tract level. Without commitment from the highest levels of government and a true belief that transparency is beneficial for all, open washing is a trap that many governments and organizations can easily step into.

On the bright side, there have been some high profile cases of various government organisations in Myanmar opening up their data. Releasing the data from most of the 2014 census, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative for 2013-2014, the 2015 Myanmar Business Survey, the 2015 Myanmar Demographic and Health Survey, and the Yangon Region government’s release of information for all the routes of the Yangon Bus Service in 2017 are recent examples of positive developments. This move to open bus route data has already yielded considerable benefits. Local developers have volunteered their time and skills to create a wide range of route finder apps, route maps, chat bots and an online complaint collection system that has been officially adopted by the Region Government. All of these products would have cost considerable amounts of money to develop if they were contracted out to private companies. On the other hand, Myanmar has yet to adopt a Freedom of Information law that mandates that all but the most sensitive data has to be provided to the public on request. If such a law could come about, it would be an invaluable tool for the opening up of government data.
Professor Mary Callahan wrote in a recent article that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s vision for civic engagement in Myanmar bears similarity to one of John F Kennedy’s much quoted lines. She is noted to often say, “Think of what you can contribute for the development of your country, not what benefits you can have from your country”. I believe that line underpins what is already happening in Myanmar, and resonates with the convictions of many passionate and dedicated individuals that I have had the pleasure and honor of meeting over the past few years: the civic minded software developer in Yangon, the budding journalist in Mandalay, the civil society leader in Tanintharyi, and the civil servant in Naypyitaw. They are already contributing much to the development of the country, and with access to more open data, they can contribute even more.

Yan Naung Oak is a Senior Advisor at Phandeeyar, an innovation lab in Yangon. He is a School of Data fellow for 2017 and also a freelance data visualisation designer.

Photo credits: Aung Win Htut/Phandeeyar