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Transparency in Taiwan Gets Boost From Open Data Alliance

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, September 16 2013

Taipei, Taiwan (Wikipedia)

This weekend Taiwan took another step toward a more transparent government. More than 200 individuals and groups from the private, public and academic sector gathered in Taipei on Saturday to establish an alliance to promote open data.

The chairman of the alliance, Peng Chi-Ming, said it would expand in the future. The 207 members will work together “to communicate with the government, make more government data available to the public and develop the nation's knowledge economy,” he added. It will also communicate with the international open data community.

Simon Chang, a government minister, announced at the ceremony Saturday that he will try to make more government data available by the year end. He also said they will prioritize the quality of information and listen to user feedback, adopting suggestions when prudent.

The Taiwanese government has already started opening up certain data sets. In July 2013 the government launched an open data platform for natural disasters, a collaboration between the Central Weather Bureau, the Water Resources Agency, the Soil and Water Conservation Bureau, the Directorate General of Highways, the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction, and Google.

The government also used mapping to combat an outbreak of dengue fever in January of this year.

In a 2012 study, Dongpo Deng and Tyng-Ruey Chuang wrote that the motivations of Taiwan's government in releasing geospatial data was unclear:

However, the incentives and decisions of governmental agencies in opening up public sector information often are complex and unclear; many of their considerations are inconsistent with those of open data practices and open government initiatives. The emphasis seems to be on data release strategies that derive "add-on value" from datasets they produce. Often there is no clear indication on whether the released datasets are free of all restrictions imposed by laws, copyrights, or other regulations. We argue that the economic benefit of "open data" should not be calculated by the "add-on value" derived from the released datasets themselves, but from benefits and opportunities made possible in an open, transparent, and non-restrictive environment of data reuse. An integral statement on freedom about data reuse, such as the use of an open data license when releasing datasets, is fundamental to any open data strategy.

Although the coverage of the open data alliance made this weekend was a bit sparse, there is some evidence that the government is again participating in the open data movement for their own ulterior motives. The director-general of the Industrial Development Bureau under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Shen Jung-chin, said that the alliance would enhance Taiwan's software and application programming industries.

On a visit to Taiwan earlier this year, Columbia University journalism professor Jonathan Stray had the opportunity to do an informal comparative analysis of open data in Taiwan versus open data in the U.S. For example, one hurdle faced by journalists and interested citizens and hackers in Taiwan is that often private companies own public data as a result of outsourcing IT work.

He also observed that different kinds of data will raise concerns in each country.

In Taiwan, it’s easy to get certain types of information that might horrify Americans, and hard to get other data that Americans would deem obviously public.

“In Taiwan, you would not succeed in getting crime data on the web,” said [T.H.] Schee [who runs an IT consulting company]. “People feel it’s an ethical issue, that you should not put crime data on the web.” Yet images from Taiwan’s huge number of surveillance cameras are deemed less sensitive. “People here are very comfortable being filmed by road cameras, and journalists can get an image from a road camera just by asking the police.”

On the other hand, Shay noted that real estate prices were a carefully guarded secret until new regulations went into effect in 2012, and they had to upload transactions to a central database.

But the resulting online system only displayed the price of one transaction at a time, so an enterprising group of four engineers took it upon themselves to scrape the entire database and produce a map of real estate prices in Taipei.

The online app got national attention, including print and TV reports. At its peak, over a million people viewed it a day. The app was built using commodity technology that will be familiar to news application developers, such as Open Layers maps and Heroku servers. Visitors found it far more usable and friendly than the official government app.

The open data alliance will hopefully further the trend of increasing transparency one data set at a time. The next, crucial step, wrote Shay, is getting journalists to use it to hold the government accountable.

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