How far has Saudi Arabia come with open data?

While clearly on the right path, Saudi Arabia still has a lot to do before it reaps the full benefits of open data

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On 20 December 2021, the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) announced the first version of its Open Data Platform, targeting specialists and stakeholders. The platform displays indicators and charts and allows users to browse data in a tree structure – aggregating information or drilling down to deeper detail. Users can also download data in various formats. SAMA promises to provide an application programming interface (API) with future versions. 

This recent announcement is part of the government’s overall strategy to promote e-government and the use of open data across all agencies. The first official e-government programme began in Saudi Arabia in 2005. The aim of the  Yesser programme was to encourage government agencies to use digital technologies. Then, in 2011, the Open Government Data Initiative was launched, aiming to promote participation and innovation through a portal. 

More recently, the country’s National Data Management Office (NDMO) developed an interim set of regulations for national data governance, which includes guidelines on open data. The framework sets policies and regulations to help citizens and companies through a large base of government data, while at the same time protecting data privacy. 

The framework includes guidelines to help government agencies format data and make it available. Agencies also receive guidance on ensuring data quality and timeliness. But the regulations and guidelines are still referred to as “interim”, which doesn’t exactly instill confidence among data consumers. 

Open data initiatives around the world have provided a first set of benefits through open government data. The first of these benefits is that government information, such as contract awards and funding, are made accessible to the public – a move intended to minimise corruption.

A second benefit of open access to government data is that usage patterns – of energy services, for example – can be used by private sector companies to find better ways to service their customers. The third benefit is that when government agencies share data, citizens no longer have to provide the same information about themselves to several different agencies. 

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In many countries, another set of benefits from open data can be achieved when groups of business or scientific communities agree on formats and rules for sharing data. All parties involved gain from the larger body of information. Scientific communities around the world have been using this idea for decades now and more recently, business communities have begun to do the same. 

Several questions have to be addressed before any data is made open, including: who owns the information, who has the right to view it and who can modify it? Most countries agree that while a lot of information should be made available, no part of it should identify individuals. For example, open data might include information on how many people have asthma, but no part of that data should indicate who those people are. 

The Saudi government now provides a register of all available datasets released by governmental organisations, along with the data itself. The portal includes a data dictionary that lists the names and types of each field in a dataset. The platform also provides APIs. 

Government-provided open data includes several sets of real-time data and APIs to read the information, which includes subjects such as water and agriculture data, as well as air quality indices. Statistical data is also available. 

To help promote the use of open data, the Saudi government runs events where participants compete to solve problems and/or create new opportunities. These events seek to attract developers, engineers and business people who might help to solve problems in different economic sectors. 

The government also runs workshops and bootcamps to help participants navigate the datasets and develop applications. Some of the workshops are designed for specific sectors, such as tourism, and some target specific technologies – artificial intelligence, for example. 

A long way to go

But although Saudi Arabia is on the right path to reap the benefits of open data, it still has a long way to go. The Open Data Inventory 2020 ranks the country 99th and gives it an overall score of 48 out of 100. 

Published by Open Data Watch, the ranking is assessed primarily along two dimensions – coverage and openness. Coverage includes five measures: indicators and disaggregation, data available in the last five years, data available in the last 10 years, first administrative level and second administrative level. The first and second administrative levels refer to government divisions that are one and two levels below the national level. In the US, this would be state and county levels; in Saudi Arabia, it is emirates and governorates, respectively. 

Saudi Arabia scores higher on coverage than it does on openness, which also includes five measures: machine readability, non-proprietary format, metadata availability, download options, and terms of use or data licence. 

Open Data Watch also takes into consideration a country’s commitment to international open data initiatives – including the IMF Standards for Data Dissemination, to which Saudi Arabia is a subscriber, and the Open Data Charter, which the country has not adopted. 

Saudi Arabia scored 100 out of 100 in coverage for three areas – international trade, balance of payment and pollution – but in those same categories, the country scored low in openness – 40, 20, and 60, respectively. 

As pointed out by the Open Knowledge Foundation and other bodies promoting open data, just because the government makes information available doesn’t mean people really use it. When the data is poorly formatted and not up to date, people lose confidence to build applications around the information. 

The Saudi government continues to publish more data – as was evidenced by the recent release of the SAMA Open Data Platform. Now it needs to ramp up its efforts to ensure high-quality data and timeliness – and to provide the APIs that developers need to use it. 

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