The wave of open data has finally reached the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries where three out of the six countries have launched dedicated open data portals at the national level.
While United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia (SA) dedicated a section for open data within their national portals (http://www.government.ae/web/guest/uae-data and http://bit.ly/jTye5X) respectively, Bahrain has chosen to launch an independent Open Data Platform (http://www.bahrain.bh/wps/portal/data/).
Since I had the privilege of contributing to the initiation of the initiative in the UAE and after spending a quite good time in exploring Bahrain and SA portals, I would like to share with you my findings and comments on the status of open data initiatives in these three countries in light of their national portals.
Starting with the justification of launching these portals, both UAE and Bahrain consider open data an important tool to promote transparency and encourage the public to “eParticipate” and interact with the government. SA portal doesn’t highlight the reason of launching their open data section but we can safely assume the same reason of UAE and Bahrain when looking at other parts of the portal especially the one dedicated to eParticipation. However, we shouldn’t overlook the importance GCC countries give to their rankings in United Nation eGovernment Index and how they work to apply the UN recommended standards on their portals, having an open data section at the national portal is among these standards. (check here and here).
Digging down in the three portals, we can find a pretty long list of open data sets gathered from different government agencies and complied in a central database. UAE and Bahrain portals offer a convenient presentation of the data sets and helpful search tool to search for a specific set while you need to browse through the lists in the case of SA. Although MS. Excel is the primary format in which the data is offered in the three portals, we can come across some PDF files in the case of UAE and Bahrain.
One important piece of data that I couldn’t find in any of the three portals is the government budget! SA portal offers a broken link, Bahrain offers a brief of “estimated” budget for previous years while UAE offers budget of the Ministry of Health only.
But regardless of how the data offered on the portals are comprehensive and accurate, and regardless of the fact that the UN e-Government Index is a key incentive for launching these portals, I highly salute this step and considering it an important milestone in the e-Government journey GCC countries started more than a decade back. The shortcomings I highlighted above (especially the lack of budget data) could help us understand the organizational and cultural challenges needed to tackled to push for an open government which is a common case in many countries including the Open Government initiative in the United Sates.
In addition, linking these initiatives more tightly to the higher national agenda and the citizens needs will help in making them sustainable. It’s comforting to see Mr. Salem Al Shair – Director General of UAE eGovernment assuring his vision and long term commitment to the open data initiative by saying :“We will continue to strive to achieve a strong and sustainable eGovernment in an endeavour to create information society and knowledge-based economy under the able guidance of our visionary leaders”