Albania can be a curious country- at least when talking about open data. In most countries, government websites would be the first place to turn to for those in search of government data.
However, Albania is different.
Open.data.al, the country’s main source of open government data, has been initiated and is still run by the Albanian Institute of Science (AIS), a civil society organization based in Tirana. They founded the portal in 2011, as there was simply no data to be found that was available in an open format.
Since then they have collected and released data from government websites so that it is more accessible and usable for the public. The AIS also provided visualisations and analyses of the data. They’ve also founded spending.data.al, a website dedicated to analysing and publishing government spending data.
On my way to Tirana I wondered what kind of impact this sort of work had. Did it create a push for open data Albania? Did others become aware of the data and actually started to use it?
The answers I got from the experts I spoke to were mixed to say the least.
Everyone I spoke to was aware of the open data portal and welcomed it as a step in the right direction. During my interviews, people stressed the ease of use and the way the data was presented. The AIS portal has saved a lot of data that would have been lost otherwise when the government introduced new websites some years ago.
However, I also became aware of the limitations of Albania’s civil society-driven approach. A major point of criticism was that AIS does not provide any data that could not be already found on government websites
The enthusiasm for open data expressed by civil society organisations and journalists thus was limited.
Similarly, while some members of the government saw in open data a way towards more transparency, others did not seem to recognise any potential in offering it. The Albanian Government committed to online tools for transparency as a member of the Open Government Partnership. It recently launched an online anti-corruption reporting platform.
However, with regards to open data, it has been slow in implementing these commitments.
Reasons for this can be seen as manifold. Albanian bureaucracy in many ways is lacking the skills on how to deal with data. Rarely are staff specifically assigned to handle data, and the data that is published often does not follow any unified standards. Many Albanians tend to rely on personal contacts, rather than websites, when looking for government data. The government in turn does not feel a strong demand for open data.
Yet, things in Albania are moving forward on the open data front.
The government finalised a policy paper on stepping up their open data game. They are planning to develop their own open data portal. This is also supported by international partners who are helping to put the issue on the agenda.
For the AIS this will be welcome news. Funding open.data.al was never an easy task and the project ran out of money in early 2015. Still, what they managed to achieve in Albania was impressive.
Albania also showed, however, that open data is at its best when government and civil society organisations work together on publishing and using open data.