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Open data in BRICS countries: a possible agenda for the future?

By Carmela Zigoni, Inesc, Brazil


Last week two important global events were taking place at the same time: the Open Knowledge Festival, in Berlin, and the BRICS meeting, at Fortaleza, Brazil. But, in what way can both agendas interconnect?

A festival of openness

The Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest) brings together researchers, hackers, international agencies, businessmen, journalists and activists from around the world interested in technology, open data and open knowledge. The idea of open knowledge could be defined simplistically as: " a broad concept that involves the sharing of knowledge in all its forms - from genes for spatial data in the literature to the programming code - so that it can be freely used, modified and shared by anyone."(Source: http://2014.okfestival.org/about-open-knowledge/). The OKFest program is extensive, and included discussions on politics, art, design, music, maps, food, open cities, open government, and many other topics.

Within many discussions at OKFest issues of open government budgets and public transparency were central, and the event provided a meeting place for many groups. Walking around the festival site you would quickly come across faces from international networks such as the Open Government Partnership (OGP), International Budget Partnership (IBP) and the Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) research network: all meeting together to upload their actions and discuss the future of open government and the role of open data.

A formal summit

Thousands of miles away, and in a much more formal setting, the meeting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) in Fortaleza started with an impact notice:  the announcement of a creation of a development bank, with initial funding of $50 billion headquartered in Shanghai. The first president of the "New Development Bank" is from India, said the document issued after the VI Summit of the BRICS in Fortaleza. The heads of state of Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa also agreed to a reserve fund worth $100 billion, for mutual aid in case of crisis.

At the same time, organized civil society were engaging with the BRICS summit through an article published last Monday – “BRICS for who?” –, which critizised timid steps on income distribution and an absence of social policies in most countries of the block. According to Nathalie Beghin, of Rebrip-Brazilian Network for Integration of People, and author of the article, the “…creation of institutional space for social participation involving organizations and social movements from all five countries is an urgent issue.

In this context, transparency of the BRICS block, especially with the creation of a development bank, may become an important international agenda. Are these five countries ready to inform their citizens about government spending? Are they ready to work on a consolidated digital infrastructure for access to public data – providing meaningful information to society? According to the 2012 Open Budget Index, for example, South Africa is very transparent when it comes to budget, having stayed at 2nd place in the international ranking of 95 countries (ranking alongsidethe United Kingdom,New Zealand,Sweden, Norway andFrance). Brazil was in 12th, India in 14th, Russia in 10th, whilst China lagged towards the bottom of the table, characterized by the Index as performing poorly on budget transparency and suffering from weak legislative oversight.

It is possible to find more information about the open data at the BRICS’s countries in the interactive tool of the Open Data Barometer project, another relevant international research that maps the open data initiatives in globe, the legal or regulatory framework, if governments supports a culture of innovation and skills development and other issues: there is also a ranking of countries considering an specific methodology to measure these topics.

Towards open BRICS through research and action

The ODDC network, the open data research group that met on the fringes of the OKFest in Berlin last week is formed by seventeen projects from thirteen countries, among them three of the five BRICS countries: Brazil, India and South Africa. Through case study research these projects are producing high information about open data in their countries, exploring advances, opportunities and challenges, a number looking specially at concerns related to public budgets and social participation. The results are being shared publicly and in most cases researchers are finding that governments are open to discuss their findings and improves the policies. Joining up this process of learning through research, with the festival of ideas and experimention seen at OKFest, a way forward for exploring open data in new countries can be seen. In the future the open data debate could be an important concern of BRICS: but for this to truly happen citizens and civil society have to start noticing the block as an important forum for discussing social progress, without which the economic gains of the BRICS may not, in practice, promote rights for the majority of their populations.