Leading civil society organisations from the Western Balkans as well as representatives of public institutions and international organizations gathered in Pristina in December 2018 to discuss open data and gov tech initiatives in the region, their successful implementation and impact of tech projects on the countries’ policies.

The conference was opened by the organizers: Blerta Thaci from Open Data Kosovo and Krzysztof Izdebski representing the ePaństwo Foundation who warmly welcomed the guests and participants. Further, we had a pleasure to listen to two important guests: Shpend Ahmeti, Mayor of the Municipality of Prishtina and Christopher Tuetsch, the OSCE Mission in Kosovo Director of Democratization Department.

“Transparency is key to good governance. It’s a precondition. It doesn’t necessarily make the best policies but it is a precondition for good governance” and “[…] opening up and publishing the data is the most important step in the process” – said Mayor Shpend Ahmeti in his welcoming remarks. He spoke about the path the Pristina municipality has taken in the goal to achieve transparency: from identification of vulnerable places, through red-flagging to eventually publishing data in order to make them available to the general public. 

Christopher Tuetsch pointed out that in the age of information, we are facing serious challenges to democracy: disinformation, fake news, cyber attacks, improper handling of personal data. Access and sharing information is largely affected by technologies: information technologies bring us together and change the way we access and share information, they have reshaped the way we express our opinion as a society. This is why the tech community and civil society bear a great responsibility to ensure the data is shared properly. The OSCE mission in Kosovo, therefore, is trying to adapt to the new methods and continue putting people first to stand by the commitment to support the democratic process in Kosovo. OSCE keeps pace of developments and support public and participatory processes in all sections of government, eg. through promoting innovative ICT tools for participation.

Session 1: “Open Data Projects in the Region” was devoted to the overview of open data initiatives by the leading civic tech organizations in the region: Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. 

Dafina Olluri from Open Data Kosovo, the co-host of the conference, shared the work the organization does through numerous project to make open data accessible in Kosovo and the region on the example of a few projects such as Open Businesses – a business registration search engine with data from over 170,000 businesses in Kosovo, a project with Let’s Do It! devoted to identifying and reporting illegal dumpings around Kosovo, or a cross-border (together with Albania) youth employability initiative involving programming courses from the youth from rural areas. 

Aranita Brahaj from Albania Institute of Science presented the main open data project where procurement data are published (publishing the data revealed corruption which motivated AIS to monitor and reflag such cases) including Open Spending Albania providing information about government finance and different socio-economic indicators. ‏According to Aranita, “open data ensures transparency and accountability and sometimes the governments are not ready to face this process.” 

Bardhyl Jashari, CEO of Metamorphosis Foundation said, “in order to meaningfully use open data as a transparency tool, people need to understand what they are”. The NGO started with  meet-ups with different stakeholders presenting examples of using open data from Macedonia and beyond to explain not only the technical side but mostly impact and benefits to society. They teach CSOs to identify data sets that bring real value to them, they offer to them small grants for open data projects producing tangible results, they also focus on increasing trust in the media and work on changing the mindset of public official explaining that being open doesn’t mean losing power but it is a way to glue the relations between the state and its citizens.

Boris Brkan, Why Not? gave an overview of open data situation in Bosnia mentioning the role of U.G. “Zašto ne” in promoting the government’s accountability and transparency with the use of technology. After introducing Freedom of Information law in 2000, media organisations and CSOs started request data sets from the government – this is when the struggle began. In 2014 Bosnia joined the Open Government Partnership which offered tools to work with governmental bodies. Boris admitted that “showing good practices and tools gives a good incentive for governments to continue opening their data sets”. Even though standards of proactive transparency have been introduced on the national level, only some of the data are accessible in the machine-readable format. It is hard to work with public administration in the state of constant political crisis characteristic to Bosnia.

Slaven Rašković, Croatian GONG showed two short videos introducing Mosaic of Connections, a DNI funded project designed to help prevent corruption and money laundry. At first, a database of people and legal entities in Croatia was created, then its main users: journalists, activists and scientists helped GONG to map the most valuable data to be opened. “It is a big challenge to open data sets and help governing bodies to meet standards and regulations,” said Slaven. By now, Mosaic has gathered information about over 350 000 physical persons, 450 000 of companies and institutions and more than 2 mln connections.

Ivana Jankovic (Serbian Share Foundation) shared the organization’s work which began with Share Festival Belgrade in 2011 and Share Conference in Beirut. Since 2012 when the Share Foundation was born to fight for the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights. The main areas of interest are: legal, policy & tech research, investigative data reporting, Establishing legal framework, and stronger advocacy for open data in Serbia.

“There is potential to support the government to ensure open data and critical information is accessible. Instead of focusing on criticism, we can focus on showing what we have done, and on more collaborative processes as well,” said Petrit Selimi, Millennium Foundation Kosovo, the partner of the conference. Petrit underlined that open data is not an IT issue to be solved: opening data is a managerial and political decision as an essential part of working in the government.

For Session 2: “Open Data in Public Institutions: The Key to Successful Implementation and Delivery” we were joined by the partners from Kosovo’s Agency of Information Systems, European Union Kosovo, Novus Consulting, OSCE Mission in Kosovo, Directorate on Data Protection, Romanian Coalition for Digital Economy and FNF Western Balkans.

Kujtim Gashi, the representative from Kosovo’s Agency of Information System elaborated on their ongoing work to digitalize their current data and the effort they put into encouraging other institutions to follow their lead.  Toni Crisolli, FNF Western Balkans shared that “What we believe is that decision-makers have to be educated when we talk about open data, we talk about standards but we also need to focus on the ability of the decision-makers, public, and civil society to understand and use the data.” ‏Eldita Tarani from Novus Consulting spoke about their work on updating the Open Data Portal and cooperation with various institutions to push them towards updating and publishing their data without the fear of breaching any privacy laws. Mikaela Gronqvist representing European Union Kosovo, on the other hand, argued that open data is a much larger concept than just to be linked with public administration. The cross-sectoral collaboration is indispensable, therefore, “We are also working to support innovation, startups and the civil society so they can all have access to information. Information is power.” The moderator Aldo Merkoci (Levizja Mjaft) admitted that with big data comes big responsibility. The big question is: how should we structure the data and who are the people who might be affected by this data? 

“It is the role of local authorities to ensure that personal data is not published or used on the grounds of open data… We need to ensure that upon the publication of anonymous data no individual can be identified,” argued Biljana Volceska from the Macedonian Directorate on Data Protection Macedonia, while Cristian Botan (Romanian Coalition for Digital Economy) underlined that public information doesn’t necessarily mean open information. Open doesn’t imply that a data set is valuable. Even if the data is valuable it doesn’t mean it’s useful. Aferdita Pustina (OSCE Mission in Kosovo) concluded with the need of structured communication between the officials and citizens in order for it to be effective – on the example of the  Digital Platform for Public Participation.

The starting point of Session 3: “Impact of Open Data”, moderated by Aida Salketic from OSCE Mission in Kosovo, was Article 19 from the Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” and its UN convention’s extension.

The first speaker Simon Delakorda (INePA) started with presenting a pilot of the open data and public participation project “Smart Voice” pointing to the aspect of the quality of freedom of speech in the public discourse. He underlined the importance of using open data to make informed decisions and the need of the common denominator in terms of the approach to the variety of data sets for NGOs to be able to take effective actions.

Orsolya Barsi from Hungarian K-Monitor mentioned some of the civic tech projects such as asset declarations digitalization, mapping of corruption cases, collection of investigative journalists’ articles or red-flagging corruption in public procurement, with the awareness of still great challenges in terms of producing high quality open data.

Valmira Bebri from the Municipality of Tirana: “We have less than 2 years that we have started the Open Data Tirana portal, and we are trying to have all the datasets compliant to open data standards. We use Google Analytics to measure our impact, and so far we have 6000 unique users.”

Gresa Deda from the Municipality of Prishtina underlined the city’s success: before Prishtina citizens were required to submit an FOI request in order to have access to data which took the municipality up to 30 days to reply. Today they get the information within 24h through Prishtina online portal.

Lejla Sadiku, UNDP, Turkey stated that in her view, ”the future is in intersections. We should be able to correlate data in order to produce meaningful conclusions.” Lejla thinks that the definition of open data should be expanded beyond open public data – data from private institutions are similarly important. 

Krzysztof Izdebski, ePaństwo Foundation concluded: “It is a complex topic, which requires complex solutions. Open data platforms facilitate and make the communication and decision-making process more efficient between different institutions”.

The event was organised by Fundacja ePaństwo and Open Data Kosovo with the support of key partners: OSCE Mission in Kosovo, National Endowment for Democracy  and Millennium Foundation Kosovo.