Established and run by the World Wide Web Foundation, the Open Data Lab Jakarta engages with a wide range of partners in the region to build a solid research, innovation and advocacy platform and test ideas on the ground in order to achieve social impact through the use of open data.

NOW! Jakarta spoke to Arthur Glenn Maail, Open Data Lab Jakarta’s Research Manager, about the opportunities and challenges of open data. 

Could you tell us more about the Open Data Lab Jakarta? In a nutshell, what do you do exactly?

The Open Data Lab Jakarta is a research and innovation lab focused on designing, testing and applying open data-driven solutions to pressing social, economic and political issues. We tailor our approaches based on local realities, so we have a deeper understanding of the “what, why, and how” in a given environment—and are therefore able to solve problems more effectively. We work closely with national and local governments, civil society and international organisations, and, on occasion, the private sector with the goal of empowering these partners to run their own sustainable open data initiatives.

Open Data Lab Jakarta was opened in 2014. Why was Jakarta chosen as first location? 

Back in 2013, open data was still very new in the Southeast Asia region, including Indonesia. Locally, it faced many challenges, such as non-existent proactive disclosure policies and practices, low levels of data accessibility and quality, and lack of data skills in civil society to make use of available government data, making it very difficult for open data to result in social impact. At that time there was no support structure to advance open data in Southeast Asia. It initially seemed a bit bleak for open data here.

However, this also provided an opportunity to kickstart an open data movement in the region and reverse the situation. We could influence the growth of open data here, and make sure that the approaches taken are bottom-up, contextually tailored and sustainable. There was some initial willingness to support open data measures coming from a few local officials, civil society and funding organisations in Jakarta, which made it a healthy environment to build the first Open Data Lab. From all this together, the Lab was founded to advance open data in Southeast Asia through long-term engagement with policy makers, capacity building of civil society and the development of customised, locally informed models for data disclosure and use.

Open data should lead to social benefit. This sounds very good in theory, but still somewhat abstract. Could you give us concrete examples on how this works, and how this process can affect our daily lives?

The best way to probably illustrate it is by sharing with you some of our work experiences and two stories, straight from the Lab’s coffers, come to mind: one that took place in Kidapawan, southern Philippines and another in Banda Aceh. These stories show how open data can empower civil society and regular citizens to influence local governance decisions.

We worked with E-Net Philippines, a national network of education reform advocates in the Philippines and trained them on the basics of finding, analysing and applying open data. Following this, they were able to discover that ‘Special Education Fund’ (SEF) data is proactively disclosed in a government portal and they began educating civil society organisations on where and how to access it. A group of Ustadz – Islamic teachers – from Kidapawan in southern Philippines, were able to negotiate with local government officials to use the fund to pay for salaries, uniforms, and teaching materials. They did this by showing government that the SEF is underutilised after conducting an analysis of the SEF data. This success also increased teachers’ morale and contributed positively to classroom instruction.

In Banda Aceh, the Lab has been actively advocating and pushing for open data and working closely with the local government and civil society organisations. One organisation that we trained, GeRAK Aceh – an anti-corruption watchdog, has grown a lot and last year succeeded in using open data to advocate for the extension of a mining moratorium law to protect village people from further intrusion to their lands by commercial firms. 

The South East Asaia Open Data Innovation Week's goal was to gather inovators from across the Asia-Pacific region to build a box of tools and methods for improving the design, practive and implementation of the open data initiatives to help solve the region's key political and social problem. / Photo courtesy of Open Data Lab

What kind of projects are you working on currently?

We recently wrapped up our “Innovating for Open Cities” project, where our goal was to shift the thinking from the need for ‘smart cities’ to ‘open cities’, inspired and designed by citizens, for the benefit of citizens. We provided three local innovators with the infrastructure, knowledge and network to develop, prototype and test ideas for data-driven solutions to urban challenges: 

  • In Banda Aceh, ICAIOS created a platform using public data collected by the city government, that geo-locates and promotes local products, which empowers grassroot communities and preserving local culture;
  • In Jakarta, Radya Labs developed a software application making use of data from the city fire department of Jakarta, that helps them to respond fire emergencies better; and 
  • Also in Jakarta, Perkumpulan Skala made a disaster data information platform using public data from disaster management agencies, and launched data-driven campaigns that helped raise awareness of citizens about disasters prone to the city.

Aside from this, we’re working on a project in Yogyakarta, aimed to look at how open data can be used as a tool to promote gender-inclusive development.

Finally, we have ongoing research that aims to map the current open contracting ‘infomediaries’ – information intermediaries – and conditions under which they can become effective in open contracting advocacy and engagement. The result is expected to inform policymaking and open contracting program capacity development in Indonesia.

Designed by Web Foundation's Open Data Lab Jakarta with support from Goethe-Institut Indonesia, the project "Data2Life. Life2Data" focused on using photography as a medium to depict how goverment and citizens produce, consume, and use data. / Photo courtesy of Open Data Lab.

Where do you see the main problems and biggest challenges in this region when it comes to the use of open data?

Although it’s changed drastically since 2013 and even 2014 when the Lab was first launched, there are still a number of problems faced by the ‘open data movement’ in Southeast Asia—as well as Indonesia specifically. Some of these include the lack of open data policies to promote proactive disclosure, insufficient skills to ensure that data is used to achieve development goals, inadequate data infrastructures, and poor data quality. 

It’s changing – slowly – but we need a stronger push for national policies enacting open data in the government, and to also provide a clearer understanding and structure of what open data entails. 

Lastly, although we do a lot of it in the Lab already, we need to build the capacities of more civil society actors and citizens to understand open data and apply it to their advocacy work or to use it for innovation and to build businesses. 

On the other hand, what do you think you can achieve in the next couple of years in Indonesia and Southeast Asia through your work?

We’re keen to support more national and local governments in adopting open data policies to ensure sustainable proactive disclosure of government data. We’re looking to further build the capacities of local intermediaries that can implement open data programs in a diverse range of sectors.

As part of this mission, we are also in the process of developing an open data capacity building program aiming to increase the availability of high quality open data training modules for government users at the national and local levels. 

Moving forward, part of our new course of action is to go beyond building the evidence of how open data can lead to positive outcomes. We’ll start initiating changes using data in areas where problems and opportunities thrive. We’ll be actively building movements aimed to address systemic challenges or influence the bigger ecosystem rather than targeting individual parts. Yes, we know it sounds a bit geeky, but we have firm belief that this is the necessary next step in our work and we’re excited to get it started!

Katrin Figge

Katrin Figge

Katrin Figge is a previous editor of NOW! Jakarta. An experienced writer and avid bookworm.