Article by CHANG, SHU-CHEN | Edit by Open Culture Foundation (OCF)
Taiwan was ranked as the high quality Open Data government in 2015 and 2016 by “Global Open Data Index". However, since than, there is no further development and many open data sets are still lack of function. This October, Taiwan National Development Council suddenly announced the draft of “Open Data Act" is under discussion. Before we finally step into next stage, let us review what is really going on when citizen request the data from government.
The public only realized that there was only one maintenance record of the Nanfang’ ao Bridge after the bridge crumbled on October 1, 2019. Moreover, the maintenance record was only partial, the maintenance work was incomplete, and the information was incorrect, either.
Why did the relevant information remain unobserved for so long? The Ministry of Transportation and Communications established the “Taiwan Bridge Management System (TBMS)” right after Gaoping Bridge crumbled as a result of illegal gravel mining and typhoon slamming in 2001. Although the related agencies are required to upload the maintenance records of all bridges in accordance to the system, the information has not been opened to the public, which makes it unable to be supervised by the public. People also have no idea about the safety of the bridges they are walking on daily.
Taiwan is always considered by its people as an open and democratic society. After the “Freedom of Government Information Law” has been executed for fourteen years, and Taiwan has retained top spot in “Global Open Data Index” two times in a row in 2015 and 2016, which all have become one of the prides of Taiwan. However, , the sensitive zone of significant government information that should be opened to the public remains in the dark side of this pride.
Open and Transparent Start-up of Legislation
Open and transparent administration is the standard of Democracy. A lot of countries possess government information open system. It first appeared in the constitution of Sweden in 1766, but was only valued two hundred years later after “The Freedom of Information Act” was regulated by the U.S. in 1966 which opened the records and files of the federal government and allowed citizens to apply to primary agencies for information accessing and copying. Our neighboring country, Japan, regulated a similar law, “Act of Freedom of Information”, in the early 21st century as well.
The administrative information electronic circulation was officially promoted in Taiwan after promulgating “Regulations for Administrative Information Electronic Circulation” in 1995. The “Administrative Procedure Act” advocates that “take publicity as a principle, restriction as an exception” which sets the implementing direction of government information. We have “The Freedom of Government Information Law” to have clear specification that government agencies shall open the information actively only after 2005 which ensures the right of citizens to be able to apply to administrative agencies for government documents, pictures and electronic messages. However, this is only the start-up, since the system will not turn bright from dark overnight.
Being Private by Law? When “The Freedom of Government Information Law” Failed to Carry it Through
Even though we have “The Freedom of Government Information Law”, citizens were still struggling to successfully apply for government information. Take Taiwan Association for Human Rights(TAHR) for example, the association once applied to a government agencies for some information, and was informed that the format was incorrect and was required to be rewritten after waiting for two months which may seemed like a bit out of spite.
TAHR also applied to government for open information concerning the meeting and demanded the Ministry of Education(MOE) and National Academy for Educational Research(NAER) to open the information concerning the decision-making meeting and got rejected when the MOE has a fine adjustment on the Basic Education Curricula in 2014. The MOE took The Freedom of Government Information Law as a shield, claiming that those meeting records were the internal discussions between agencies before the decision-making which shall remain private according to law. The same law also mentioned that even though the internal discussions can remain private by law, they were still allowed to be open by the agencies when necessary for public interests. Unfortunately, after continuously protesting, the MOE did not see the necessity and the public interest to open the information.
Therefore, TAHR sought for judicial assists against the MOE. In early 2015, the Taipei High Administrative Court ruled in TAHR’s favor in the first instance and demanded MOE to provide more complete information to be inspected by the public. The MOE remained unwilling to go public and insisted on appealing from the judgement. The protests started by students and teachers spread rapidly throughout the whole country.
After the presidential election and the change of executive heads in 2016, the information is finally getting slowly released two years after the initial incident. No wonder why people keep on complaining about laws not being helpful when they were in need, “This is a procedure that fails to carry it through!”
Right To Information Rating—Taiwan Being One of the Doormats
The date of legislation of “The Freedom of Government Information Law” in Taiwan is rather similar to other countries, but for ensuring the right of information for people, it is in an total opposite direction.
In 2011, the Access Info Europe and Center for Law and Democracy of Canada publicly made a Right To Information Rating which included 128 country’s “The Freedom of Government Information Law.” Between all the rated countries, Taiwan being one of the doormats with the rank 118 and several 0 points in certain rated categories.
Instead of providing the needed information openly and directly, the government of Taiwan asked citizens to provide the purpose of the application when applying for information. People were unable to require the agencies to provide the information in electronic ways. If the agency did not have any other access to provide the information, it’s allowed to provide hard copies only or to require citizens to copy them by hands which was extremely inconvenient.
In some cases, agencies might charge people for the provided information without an unified standard. This rule was awfully unfavorable for those applicants without decent wealth, such as people that were underprivileged in environment or human rights. They, especially, were more likely to have conflicts or losses over rights and interests and were more in need of applying to government for information. Therefore, the charges become another barrier of the obtaining of information.
Also, the government provided the information in accordance with the law without authorizing people to reuse or to spread the information which denied the information diffusion. It led to the situation that when someone else was in need of information, he or she had to apply to the government for the same things again which was completely inefficient.
Though the law was provided, it was giving too much space for government to operate instead of taking care of the needs of people. The National Development Council (NDC) recently announced that the draft of Open Data Special Law will be meeting us in late 2020 after consulting international experiences. Except for making rules for the open data evaluation and the applying system, this can also be a chance to look closely at people’s right to acquire and use the information and to face the problem that the information is currently unable to be entirely open and hard to utilize.
I Want More! Absolute Open Application System
Though the Open Data Special Law isn’t available in Taiwan now, the related policies were already drawn up approximately by the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission, Executive Yuan (now as the NDC) to get on to the international open-data-train seven years ago in 2012.
The so-called open data isn’t just requiring the government to provide information, but to provide information that can be utilized, revised, spread and readable by machines as original data which allows people to do big data analysis to supervise the government making the most appropriate choices or makes it easier for telecom service providers to develop mobile or computer refilling services.
Under the guidance of the policies of the NDC, a “government data open platform” (data.gov.tw) was established for Taiwan in 2013. There are more than forty thousand pieces of data related to people’s food, health, housing, transportation, education, and entertainment piled up by far that allow people to download from the website for free.
With all the data on the platform, more than eighty-five percent of the download counts are less than a hundred. In other words, the data provided by the government may not be meeting people’s requirement.
A function which allows people to suggest the government to release closed data—the “I want more” interactive section—was provided. In comparison with how closed “The Freedom of Government Information Law” was when applying for information, the whole process of the applications, including the contents of the applications and the replies from the agencies, in “I want more” can be viewed by the public.
The “Gov Data Opener” project in the “g0v Civic Tech Prototype” analyzed more than three thousand results of people applying to the government for open data on the platform this year and found some common issues:
Issue I—No replies after messages are read.
Within three thousand application records, more than fifteen percent were not replied. This type of issue may cause damage to the trust between people and the government which is one of the worst situations the agencies can possibly get.
In all central government agencies, the Bureau of Energy, Ministry of Economic Affairs was ignoring the most massages which was up to ninety-five percent. The Judicial Yuan, Legislative Yuan, Ministry of Examination, and Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) were ignoring thirty to fifty percent of the massages.
Among the local government agencies, ninety-five percent of massages were being ignored by Kinmen County, and about fifty percent by Pingtung County.
Only a minority of people would try to apply again or leave a message in the same page reminding the agencies to reply. Sadly, most of the massages remain ignored.
Issue II — Not resolving the situation of low open rate.
Another analysis by “Gov Data Opener” shows that up to fifty percent of the suggestions that people offer to the government were rejected without decent reasons.
Most agencies were refusing to open due to the data were not fully collected, incomplete, and not updated which may lead to lack of quality.
However, some agencies were unwilling to provide the original data to people while showing the public those data within announcements and supply systems even though they do have data that are prepared, complete, and with quality. The inspecting results of the hygiene of local restaurants (http://data.gov.tw/node/57699), sidewalk and bikeway (http://data.gov.tw/node/59858), real-time traffic information of the provincial highway and county highway (http://data.gov.tw/node/96456), garbage and recycling truck real-time GPS information (http://data.gov.tw/node/83745) are the examples.
Another common reply is that there are further discussions must be taken by the agencies. It makes sense to have further discussions, but the reason of why the discussions must be taken or how long it will take was never stated to people. Not to mention the amounts of further replies people are going to get. Situations like this makes people consider the so-called “discussions” are only excuses agencies give to shut people’s mouth which regardless breaks the trust between people and the government.
According to “Gov Data Opener”, the top 10 reasons public sectors claims for not providing data are:
- No data (442 replies)
- Data exists, but open in other formats (268 replies).
- We are not the authority who owns the data (258 replies).
- During discussion (231 replies).
- Data exists, not be able to open due to policy (143 replies).
- Data exists, not be able to open due to other administration consideration (125 replies)
- No data, need the specific regulation to open the data collection (113 replies).
- Can’t make judgement (88 replies).
- Data exists, the limitation of data restriction (77 replies).
- Data exists, need extra application or fee (74 replies).
Issue III — People passing by the data not knowing agencies are making them open
The last issue is that the agencies are not announcing the data’s opening date nor reporting to people after agreeing on opening the data and leads to an awkward situation that no one is using the data which the agencies prepare hard for a while.
For dealing with this kind of situation, “Gov Data Opener” designs a “tagging system” to sort out different replies by agencies which allows people to search for available data and unavailable data with reasons tagged, including cases need to be further discussed.
The current competent authority of the platform—NDC—agreeing to adopt this tagging system and to improve it. The opening date of data are required to be scheduled and reported to people by the agencies. Also, tagging data’s statuses and reasons to people when data are unavailable is required. Without appropriate reasons, meaning the corresponding tags are not found, data shall be opened to people. When discussions are needed by the agencies, the system will automatically remind the agencies to report back to people.
Data applying assistant also establishes a non-government website (dataopener.tw, available since January, 2020) to design customized “Agency Transcript” which shows not only agencies as a whole or a particular agency’s processing status without any barrier.
The “Gov Data Opener” project is also responsible for being the bridge between the government and people to transfer government’s open data policies and critical information services into applying strategy that can be operated easily. The strategy is provided for people to refer to while writing the applications which makes the connection between application and administration stand out and makes agencies more willing to release data.
To Promote Open Data from inside the Government
Another way to dive right straight into government open data except for application is to become a non-government committee of government’s open data consult team or to convey opinions through them.
There are government’s open data consulting teams in Executive Yuan and its thirty-one subordinate agencies, a certain part of them are non-government specialists in open data including industry representatives, scholars, civic group, etc. They have meetings with agencies periodically to build the best strategy of open data for the government.
Chia-Kai Liu, the CEO of DSP, Inc., was one of the first non-government committees of the MOEA and gave a keynote speech in his first meeting. “We did not know what to do at the time. I said we shouldn’t just open but to open on purpose which means to only open after having a clear vision of goal” Liu says. Officials of MOEA approved his idea and started planning their main work and the corresponding information.
Lucien Lin, the general legal counsel of Open Culture Foundation, once served as a committee of the consult team of the Ministry of Culture (MOC) to discuss the adequate performance indicator of open data as the goal for the agency to achieve that year. Ying-Kai Liao, a non-government committee of the consult team of the Atomic Energy Council (AEC), using his own time to draw up a draft of open data operation strategy and convince agencies to adopt it.
Most open data consult teams discuss the applications from “I want more” during the meetings and see if the replies from agencies are appropriate. If not restricted by certain regulations and is provided with civic interests, non-government committees are allowed to bring up a discussion during a meeting when agencies refuse to open.
There are approximately two meetings of the consult teams in a year, nevertheless, many non-government committees show that they are more like external committees who provides suggestions but cannot require agencies what to do.
Chi-Ming Peng, served as a non-government committee of the consult team several times also the chairman of open data coalition, once mentioned a revolutionary idea of “open science” to the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). Peng tried to convince agencies to require the scientific research plan entrusted by the government to open the original data after the end of a case for people to inspect and utilize. However, he realized that the organizers of consult teams were usually the information unit of agencies who had very limited influences on the business unit—the actual collector and owner of administrative data. “We just couldn’t get it done after discussing many times and agreeing on it” says Peng. There are things that are beyond a non-government committee’s power.
However, Chia-Hsun Yang, once served as a non-government committee of the Ministry of Transportation and Communication (MOTC), still holds a great expectation on the consult team. He thinks that people and agencies can be both invited to a meeting to have a discussion after having disputes on data application and utilization. Yang says “It takes quite some time for this mediating function to work since some early investigations are required. It hasn’t been done yet since the operation may be difficult due to that it is necessary for us to understand the issues from each side just like a judiciary”. Liu thinks this type of operation is more like what a data governance committee would do that belongs to an internal regular compilation—a higher level of data managing mode—which is hard to be achieved with only two meetings per year and two hours per meeting. It will take more discussions and agencies’ willingness to decide if the consult team can do more than this.
The More You Want; the More Open the Government is!
After the accident of the crumbling of the Nanfang’ ao Bridge on October 1,2019, the MOTC finally promised to open and cooperate to develop a researching system for people after the national bridge maintenance records had been closed for eighteen years. People also realized that the national bridge maintenance records were concerned to be counterfeited and started to question the safety about our daily transportation.
We tried to suggest the government to fully open the data of bridge maintenance records through “I want more” on October 6, 2019. Fourteen counties replied a month later. A minority of counties such as Hsinchu, Lienchiang, and Penghu agreed to open while majority of counties left their rights of decision-making to MOTC. The MOTC promised to gather related agencies and local governments to have a meeting to not only discuss the details of the opening but also to develop a researching system for people in need. People are able to understand the risk of transportations and supervise the government to manage authentically through the releasing of data in the future.
When trespassing onto the sensitive zone of undisclosed government information, people absolutely have the right to attack through systematically applications, data open platform, and consult teams to actively demand the government to reply and self-evaluate. Every attack of the citizens counts as a chance to push the government to be more open and transparent!
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