Exchanging open data strategies with civil society groups in Nepal

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Photos by Louisa Dennison

Kathmandu, Nepal’s open data ecosystem is a growing space, where I.T. professionals and advocates come together to support Nepal’s governments at all levels and work toward social impact. The Sunlight Foundation was invited by Development Initiatives and The Asia Foundation to provide a week-long series of workshops and consultations about user-centered design for Data for Development in Nepal partners.

As a What Works Cities partner, Sunlight’s Open Cities team provides hands-on support to U.S. city governments, and we’ve generated a number of best practices and lessons learned through that experience. So naturally, we were excited to meet with Nepali open data organizations to share our experiences working with local governments and learn from our Nepali counterparts to find where our work might share common challenges and solutions.

Throughout our conversations, we found the following:

Sustainability models are a big question for local organizations

In Nepal, the main source of funding for open data organizations is international development money. Organizations like the National Democratic Institute, The Asia Foundation, and various Western aid organizations have supported the early growth of a nascent open data and government transparency ecosystem. However, participants at our workshop were hungry for more locally grown network connections and support to facilitate organic growth among themselves and their local partners.

We were glad to be invited by Data for Development partners to bring a more community-centered lens to the work of local partners, and to provide a space for local partners to be in the same room to discuss challenges and lessons that are specific to Nepal’s local context. By teaching our user-centered design strategies as the core techniques for open data impact, we believe that partners will come away more equipped to represent the voices of local community members in open government advocacy and public decision-making.

Cities share similar challenge areas across countries

In our discussions with the groups, we found a number of shared areas of concern for local communities and governments. For example, one group’s work was focused on the topic of sustainable waste management. This is a hot topic in U.S. cities as well, both in terms of the quality of sanitation services provided by local government and broader system-level questions around sustainability. Another group was working with local governments on disaster management. Here in the U.S., we frequently meet with city officials and community members concerned about flooding and other hazards. Similarities can be found for many other hot topics, including air quality, education, and local economies.

Of course, there are also many differences between local communities and governments in the U.S. and Nepal — not something to be ignored! Still, the many topics of common concern may offer opportunities for collaboration and knowledge-sharing between groups working on open data in different countries.

Building global connectivity

We’re encouraged by the work going on both in Nepal and in countries around the world. We believe that in many communities, there are open data, civic tech, and open government advocates ready to grow and learn from shared challenges. Open data advocates in the U.S. and in Nepal share challenges around dismantling paper-based bureaucracies and creating meaningful opportunities for residents to have a say in local politics. Seeing the exciting new activity in Nepal, we’re excited about the future that civic tech and open data groups at the local level may generate through collaboration.

Participating groups — which were focused on a variety of different social or political issues — had a range of experience with regards to open data. Many were quite familiar with using open data to advocate for their specific issue, while others were eager to learn the basics of open data, being newer to the data and tech space. A number of participants in our workshop had a strong capacity to build and implement civic technology with a clear path toward social impact. Like so many other open data groups around the world, organizations that had been publishing open data for longer seemed more disenchanted with the “publish everything you can” model and were bringing an exciting new energy to using human-centered strategies to have deeper local impact.

As a result, we’re thinking a lot about how we can create stronger ties between organizations in different countries that are aligned around this kind of work. We hope that we can continue reaching out to open-government advocacy organizations around the world — particularly those working at the local level — to understand the common challenges and solutions we face in working toward more transparent, accountable, and accessible governments.