By Corey Blay
One of the more interesting points raised in our last class is the question of cultural difference. While the United States has steered a global effort to share government data, encourage collaboration between countries, and foster deeper level of participation among citizens, other countries have taken a more tentative approach. Russia’s choice to join the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and how it will choose to leverage that partnership presents a fascinating case study in the how open data appropriation differs by country and cultural norms.
Russia’s Open Government initiative is rather labyrinthian and inward looking. Its priorities include fighting corruption, holding government agencies accountable, and creating favorable climates for investment and entrepreneurship. These principles diverge from those stated by President Obama in the United States’ OGP action plan where he calls for increasing public integrity, managing public resources more effectively, and improving public services. Despite these differences, Russia is energetically pursuing membership in the OGP. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev announced on December 13, 2012 that Russia will join the organization soon. Given President Obama’s leadership in creating the OGP, the United States’ enthusiastic participation is to be expected. Still the question remains, How can these divergent sets of principles both define the shared goal of championing open data?
It may be more illustrative to examine the decision making of a country that has chosen not to join the OGP: Ireland. According to an OGP blog post, Ireland is portrayed as resisting even simple efforts to make government data more accessible. Yet, a quick Google search indicates that there is a vibrant open source community in Ireland. Non-profits like ActiveCitizen and companies like Dubl:nked collaborate to create useful applications that improves people’s quality of life by aggregating open data. Maybe Ireland hesitance is easily explained by the fact that it has suffered through a devastating recession since 2008.
A deeper analysis reveals the issue may be more complex than simple economics. Instead, I would argue the true answer is found between the nexus of a country’s economic standing and educational system. According to the aforementioned blog post, Ireland is well regarded for having the human capital needed to sustain a knowledge economy. Its highly-skilled workforce attracted multinational companies and strengthened Ireland’s economic standing. In fact, Ireland is further reforming its education system to ensure its students are best prepared to find gainful, long-term employment, and private companies like ALISON are helping use MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) to deliver free certification courses for adults. Universitas 21 ranks the higher educational systems of different countries. The United States came in 1st. Ireland ranked 16th, and Russia was 32nd.
Contrary to Ireland, Russia’s higher education system is not well designed for its economic needs. It has undergone several waves of reform and modernization since the 1990’s. However, Russia’s economic liberalization has proven much more stubborn, and Russia has seen a significant portion of its talent leave for opportunities in other countries. In this light, Russia’s goal of creating a climate for investment and entrepreneurship becomes incredibly logical. It needs to join the OGP in order to become globally competitive. Among a host of other benefits, membership affords Russia the opportunity to divine strategic uses of open data to improve accountability and deliver educational resources to its workforce. While it is true that Ireland may soon join the OGP as well, it can afford to do on its own terms. Russia can’t. Its economic and educational competitiveness is literally at stake, and Russia lacks the infrastructure needed to compete on its own.
But let me return to the point I raised in the beginning of this post. Adoption of open data platforms and standards is not just about global competitiveness, but also culture. Competitiveness explains why countries may choose to join the OGP. Culture explains how countries decide to adopt those standards. The state of a country’s education system illuminates the divergent challenges each country faces.
Ruairi Quinn, Ireland’s minister for education and skills, stated simply, “Many of us grew up in a household where there was a (great) value on education.” Galina Belaya, a dean at Moscow’s Russian State Humanities University, shared, “We [Russia] are an illiterate country of peasants who still have a complex about being poorly educated. This is one of Russia’s big problem.” While Russian’s eagerness to join the OGP now makes greater sense, it remains to be seen it can live up to its principles and maximize the power of participation that open data holds for average citizens.