Recently, Deputy Minister Hannah Yeoh highlighted a major issue that’s been the stumbling block for policy research: open, accessible data. In her speech, she acknowledged how a data-driven approach could help with directing government resources to solve social problems efficiently and accurately. She described her challenge in solving issues in her ministry, with the lack of data sharing between government departments and an inadequate data collection methodology.

Hannah’s challenges, among many other things, highlights Malaysia’s lack of understanding of how data, more specifically open data can be beneficial to both the government and the public.

Why we need open data

Apart from helping federal and state agencies make informed and efficient decisions, open data also plays a key factor in accountability. This is the cornerstone philosophy for Sinar Project, a digital civil society group that focuses on making data publicly accessible. For years now, they have been collecting, parsing and cleaning up publicly-available government data and collating it on their website. While the information on their site is great, because it is based off publicly available data, it isn’t comprehensive and has noticeable gaps. This coupled with the fact that the project is non-profit and is handled by a very small (and overworked) team, there is only so much that can be done.

In 2016, the Barisan government launched as part of an effort in making open data accessible. While the initiative is commendable, the site and its usefulness leave a lot to be desired. Firstly, is the data only usually being summary numbers and not in-depth statistics. Two, the data made available are generally not that useful. Three, one occasionally encounters a server error when retrieving the chosen dataset.

Open data is important because it also encourages the public to take part in making informed decisions. Currently, we rely heavily on academic research, NGOs, think tanks and research firms for data. Their research projects (sometimes funded, sometimes independent) is what usually spurs public discussion. How can civil society and the public make independent policy recommendations and lobby for change if the data required to support their recommendations is guarded behind inefficient or protective bureaucracy?

For example, the most recent suicide rate statistics made available by the government was in 2009. That’s a ten-year gap where proper mental health research with updated data could have been conducted by government, private, and independent bodies. Currently, the only updated data that can be drawn from is the World Health Organisation (WHO) and a smattering of agencies and bodies paying attention to the subject. So now, when the government calls for more efforts to deal with the increasing cases of depression and mental health issues in the country – I have to ask if the data they are using has integrity and if it is granular enough to address the problem?

How can researchers and civil society make and advocate policy recommendations when the only available data they have is from a decade ago? Just to add an example in, the Terengganu State’s Treasury Department’s most updated Budget numbers are from 2012. Anybody outside the state department scrutinising Terengganu’s budget would surely have a difficult time trying to identify how to improve the state’s current spending and socioeconomic decisions. Especially if the government (both federal and state) changes hands during elections.

The need to cultivate a data-aware society

A visit to a number of the state governments’ site, under the open data set page, would usually show that they have no records of publicly available data. This despite ironically having another section with an application for requesting information not available on the website. For me, this presents a very interesting premise: does anyone write to these state agencies to ask for data? And if they do, how often do they get a response back with the information required?

Maybe it also needs to be said that for all the calls for open data, the only groups demanding for it, and acknowledge its usefulness is civil society, business intelligence firms and those in (academic or policy) research. Perhaps we need to cultivate the culture for the public to also find usefulness in data-driven decisions. Information like the number of times and reasons the Klang Valley rail service breaks down might sound mundane, but it’s vital in providing consumer groups and the public to lobby and pressure for service improvements.

Finally, this is where we get to accessibility via web design. The fact is, government websites are poorly designed. They are hardly accessible and trying to locate the thing you want is like navigating a maze. While a more technologically-literate individual may be able to find their way around (eventually), what about those who are not? The information provided on government websites may be updated, but there is no point if the data is obscured behind bad user interface and experience.

There is this saying, “If you build it, they will come”. Perhaps the first thing both state and federal governments need to consider investing in is updating their websites to a more modern streamlined and easier to navigate design. Make the data easier to access. Secondly, is to train civil servants to input necessary and important data with proper methodologies in place. This is something government departments could consult researchers and academics on. Thirdly, upload that data – make it publicly accessible and updated. Better yet, make a point to upload those annual reports and datasets so that comparisons can be made. Comparing data trends over time is useful in knowing precisely what and where to address. Fourthly, is for both civil society and the government to educate the public on the merits of making data-driven decisions. And not just using data for the sake of it, but to be data-literate and use data judiciously to inform decisions and lobby for necessary improvements. It’s not enough to build; you also need to teach them how to use it.

If prior to taking over, the Pakatan government complained about the lack of open data leading to overblown manifesto promises (when campaigning as the opposition) and the shock of discovering outdated or useless databases when diving deep into solving issues – one could only hope that this at least would incentivise them to recognise the importance of open, updated data. Data shouldn’t be held within the confines of the government; it should also be made available for everyone who has an equal right in shaping this nation. And we can start by making informed decisions backed by evidence and numbers.

This article has been published in The Malay Mail. The Malay version of this article has also been published in Sinar Harian.