These numbers can change your life

We have seen political and cultural revolutions, recurring in the annals of history with somewhat predictable frequency. Now we need to deal with yet another revolution: data revolution. And, mind you, it’s a constant revolution. Data revolution is significant as it brings in new opportunities for using data to improve people’s lives. But data revolution makes any sense, only if the volumes of data are open and accessible to those who need them. Thus the focus shifts, ultimately, to open data.

And, the Sultanate has much to cheer about in open data. Oman stood first in the Gulf (and eight in West Asia), in the Open Data Inventory (ODIN) 2016 report on data coverage and openness in the websites of national statistical offices across the world. The report was released by the US-based Open Data Watch, a pioneering agency in Open Data tracking and consultancy. Oman received a global ranking of 69 in the report that assessed 173 countries.
Open Data Watch analysed the Oman government’s data portal (www.data.gov.om) for its ranking. The portal is maintained by the government’s statistical agency National Centre for Statistics & Information (NCSI), and offers an excellent platform for users to navigate various statistical indicators, apart from providing data analysis, display and sharing tools.
In its report on Oman, Open Data Watch examined the country’s performance across social, economic and environmental data. The Sultanate achieved a higher score than the general average in data openness, and scored better than the regional average in social statistics. Oman’s performance in terms of availability of economic statistics was better than the average score among high-income countries. A commendable achievement indeed!
The Omani government data portal (www.data.gov.om) was adjudged the best model across three global practices: Open License, General Availability and New Data Request Options. Oman’s overall score of 42 per cent came from data coverage sub-score of 32 per cent and data openness sub-score of 51 per cent. Also, the report notes that, within the Sultanate, the highest levels of coverage and openness are on social statistics and the lowest levels are on environmental statistics.
The report suggests that Oman collects and publishes more disaggregated data across categories to enhance coverage, and publish more environmental data in machine readable and non-proprietary formats. Also, it urges NCSI to publish more metadata to accompany data to increase its usefulness.
So what is Open Data? It is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone. It is crucial to enhance transparency and access to public information.
Recognising its importance, recently, the UNSC formulated the Global Action Plan for Statistics, where it stressed on exploring means of revising fundamental principles of official statistics to include Open Data initiatives, and taking on board all stakeholders of national statistical systems in the Open Data process.
Open Data is critical to the success of data revolution. The multiple benefits of data revolution can be realised only if innovators can apply new technologies to open data and experiment with multiple combinations. Denying or even restricting free access to data tantamount to killing innovation. However, as the emerging Big Data techniques apply only to proprietary databases, the level of availability of these techniques will determine the future of data revolution.
The two crucial aspects of Open Data are, of course, data availability and access, and the permission to re-use and redistribute the data, and interoperability among data sets.
Open Data Watch is a non-profit organisation that complements data revolution, and focuses on linking open data and official statistics, by monitoring open data policies, measuring their impact, sharing knowledge, building partnerships, and advising governments and international organisations. Its ODIN report is the only global assessment of the level of coverage and openness of data on websites maintained by national statistical offices across the world.
Data Revolution and Open Data are an integral element in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN World Data Forum held in Capetown in January focused on this aspect, and over 1,400 data producers, analysts and users from private, public, civil society and academic communities attended the forum where they explored how to harness data revolution to achieve SDGS.
However, open access to micro-data remains a major challenge, owing to confidentiality issues. But these data are needed to ensure that small groups are not marginalised in the data revolution. With the Sultanate heavily focusing on improved governance, enhanced citizen engagement and inclusive development, and innovation, there is much to gain if the country’s statistical agency NCSI works closely with the Open Data Community.

T V Sarnga Dharan Nambiar