Building up the open data community in United Arab Emirates

Last week, I had an exciting opportunity to speak to representatives of federal and local government entities across United Arab Emirates (UAE)  in a workshop on Open Government Data. The workshop was organized by Emirates eGovernment as part of the awareness activities we had during the visit of Mr. Richard Kerby – the Senior Inter-Regional eGovernment Advisor at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) to the country.

Throughout the past 12 months, I had presented and discussed the open data topic with government officials in meetings and other workshops but this was the first time to have a full day workshop dedicated for this topic.  It’s also likely to be the first of its kind in the whole Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

During the workshop, I’ve presented and discussed with the audience the following issues:

  • Emirates eGovernment’s shift towards Gov 2.0 practices
  • The driving forces for open government data initiative in UAE
  • Basic definitions of open data
  • Benefits and challenges of opening up government data
  • Open data as a global trend
  • And the way forward for open government data initiative in the UAE

For most of the audience, open data was totally a new term to them which explains the main purpose of the workshop: to promote the concept and build up a community of open government data across government, society, academic and private sectors.

However, the audience found it a natural step for UAE to adopt the open government data practice and even develop its own local model of this concept (check my last year article on this issue). There was a great concise among the audience on the strong support and commitment offered by the political leadership in the country to the values embedded within the open government initiatives such as transparency, citizen participation and government accountability. The country’s top national agenda as identified in the UAE Vision 2021 and UAE Government Strategy (2011-2013) clearly calls for such practices.  You can follow the Twitter and Facebook accounts of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai to see how he himself provides  practical examples in this matter.

In addition, many federal and local government entities across the country have already started adopting the open government practices such as publishing open government data and engaging citizens in designing government policies and services. Only a few days ago, the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) has published The draft Guidelines for the Design, Construction and Operation of Nuclear Power Plants for  public consultation. Several government entities have started sharing good amount of their data in open format on their websites, this includes the national portal of the country (government.ae)

On the other side, the attendees discussed the noticeable changes that are taking place in the UAE society (citizens and residents) when it comes to the perception of government’s responsibilities towards them and how it should fulfill these responsibilities. Most of the audience see a shift towards a more proactive and interactive culture where citizens take actions to engage with government authorities and participate in designing its policies and programs. Social media is believed to be  an enabling tool used by the public in smart and effective way to promote this shift. In my presentation I showed the case study of #CleanJumeirah initiative, you can read about it in my earlier post (in Arabic).

So all these are enabling success factors for the open government data in UAE to flourish and grow horizontally and vertically, but we shouldn’t overlook the challenges and risks that might hinder the progress of the initiative. Key challenges identified by the audience include the need for delivering this message to decision makers and policy designers across government entities, lack of enough awareness and education on the topic  on various levels including business and technical levels, some legislation barriers  and the culture of government entities that considers information as classified assets by nature even if they aren’t. Other less-concerning challenges include practical and technical issues related to data exchange across government information systems and the design of open data portals.

The audience have suggested and discussed several valuable approaches to tackle these challenges. However, In my humble opinion I see building up a community of open data possible stakeholders across UAE as a crucial success factor. Such community will offer us a platform where all related stakeholders can come together and work collaboratively to innovate solutions to all these challenges and others that might emerge down the road. This platform will go beyond the government boundary to include parties like   business people, applications developers,, academic researchers and students and off course the public.

I see this workshop with the high number of attendees and the interesting discussions we had as an excellent step in this direction. The overwhelming  positive feedback we received will definitely encourage us to proceed in our initiative with more confidence.
I would like to personally thank all of those who spent the day with us at the workshop. For them and for those who couldn’t be with us, here is the presentation I presented at the workshop:
As always, your comments and feedback are welcomed and you can follow this blog for more update on this topic.
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