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Citizens Create Open Data Tools to Drive Transparency in Hong Kong

BY Rebecca Chao | Thursday, August 8 2013

The Legislative Council Building in Hong Kong (source: Martin Schiele/flickr)

Edward Snowden might have thought otherwise, but Hong Kong residents find their city-state pretty opaque when it comes to access to information about their own government's activities. A group of open data activists are trying to change that, kicking off several initiatives and creating new tools.

One tool, set to launch mid-August, takes the lead from the U.K. site, What Do They Know?. That project enables users to more easily submit Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and to keep track of those already submitted. While Hong Kong doesn't have a formal FOI law, it has guidelines. So the app is able to adopt a similar approach.

The activists have named their other app the Legco Hansard Parser. It sifts through meetings, speeches and other government information from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or ‘LegCo,’ and turns it all into machine-readable documents.

Both tools sprouted from Hong Kong’s first open data hackathon in mid-May, an event where technologists, journalists, and other members of civil society worked together to create apps to promote civic engagement, such as recycling, and improving food safety, among others. Although many of the apps didn't end up getting fully developed, the activists' larger goal was to foster a culture of openness and transparency that would have a long-term impact on the city's political culture.

FOI Request Tracker

The issue the programmers were trying to address during the hackathon is the lack of oversight over the fulfillment of requests for information from government officials and departments.

The FOI prototype is being developed by Darcy Christ, a researcher for the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre's Open Government Data initiative. The Centre has been pushing for some time for an actual FOI law.

The FOI site contains listings on all the government departments, as well as contact information. The system is designed to make the process of making FOIA requests more efficient, as well as easier to track and understand.

“It simplifies the process for citizens who might not be familiar with the means to getting information,” says Christ.

The request is also made public, which adds an element of accountability.

“If there are problems with data not being released more people will be aware of it,” he says.

It is unclear whether the application will be adopted by the government, or if it will remain a watchdog tool run by a third party.

“My goal is to demo it to the government to see what they think of it,” says Christ. He says that British Columbia in Canada runs its own FOI request system and offers statistics on types of requests received.

“If [the government] wants to get more involved, it’s not a bad thing,” he says. “But there is still good reason for a third party to be involved.”

In the long run, says Christ, the goal is to push the government to actually enact a FOI law.

LegCo Hansard Parser

The Hong Kong Legislative Council releases Hansards, or transcripts of their meetings, in PDF format. Francis Chong, a programmer who attended the Open Data Hackathon, created the LegCo Hansard Parser to turn these PDF documents into machine-readable texts so that data could be extracted and used.

Chong explained in an email that his aim was to allow others to use the converted data to create their own projects. For example, data extracted through the documents can be used to find out a LegCo member's attendance rate. The documents can now be searched by topic of discussion or to find out the vote record of specific members.

“The software is available freely online so everyone can use it, modify it and create their derivative works,” writes Chong.

Chong had been mulling the idea of a LegCo parser long before the hackathon. He was inspired by a similar app produced in a hackathon in Taiwan, which converts government documents into data, and then creates visualizations of the data.

As a prototype, the project currently doesn't contain as much information as a working app might. But Chong hopes to continue to add to the site. He has already extracted data on attendance, who spoke at meetings, and is hoping to add voting records in the near future.

The LegCo project was one of the most popular, says Mart Van de Ven, the hackathon's organizer. “It’s a monster win for open data,” he said.

’Inappropriate Data’ in Hong Kong

Even though the Hong Kong government has been releasing data since 2011 through a project called Data.One, most LegCo members have never heard of the term, ‘open data,’ says Van de Ven.

Further, Hong Kong lacks an open information culture.

“The mindset in Hong Kong is that if you reveal too much, you open the door to criticism,” said Van de Ven. The hackathon was a step in trying to “change that status quo […] of having non-access as the default,” he said.

The Data.One open data site, a project of a techy politician named Charles Mok, is still lacking in many ways.

“We were having some troubles with the scope and quality of the data,” wrote Van de Ven in an email. “Enough for some to half-jokingly suggest we should build Data.Two.”

Data.One also has legal restrictions in their terms and conditions of data use. Van de Ven points out one worrying aspect of the disclaimer says data shall not be used in an ‘inappropriate’ manner.

“'Inappropriate' is a social, not a legal concept and it isn't defined what it means,” he notes.

Other open data activists have taken issue with the terms and conditions, says Van de Van. Andrew Scott, of the Open Knowledge Foundation, says the terms limit ‘unpleasant’ uses of data, which could put a damper on free use of the data.

Still, Van de Ven clarifies, “We take issue with it, but haven't had any issues with it, in terms of adversely affecting what we wanted to do with the data.”

There are also some hopeful signs that this culture of closed data is beginning to shift. The interest in the first open data hackathon was “so overwhelming” that a LegCo member dropped by to check out the event, said Van de Ven. “That’s definitely an improvement in our scope and scale.” Hong Kong is also currently hosting its first Wikimania event, which brings together government officials and activists alike to discuss issues of openness and transparency.

While most of the apps didn't get fully developed, with the exception of the FOI request tool and LegCo parser, this group of civic hackers are pushing for a larger, policy-oriented goal to use new technology to drive political change, so getting politicians involved and understanding the value of open data is crucial.

The group’s second open data hackathon will be held in November.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.