The first edition of the Global Data Barometer was launched a few months ago as the new international standard for assessing the extent to which governments around the world effectively publish open data. The Global Data Barometer evaluated 109 countries, and it gave Oman a score of 14%, making Oman the worst-performing GCC country on the barometer and among the lowest 10% tier of all the countries evaluated.
Even though the barometer is explicitly choosing not to give ranks to countries, we can only understand what is realistically possible to achieve by comparing ourselves to our neighbours. We believe that the score Oman achieved is a reflection of the state of open data in the country, and Oman needs to take proactive steps if it desires to take advantage of the opportunities created by open data and be part of the global data revolution.
This post looks at the criteria used by the Global Data Barometer to evaluate Oman and makes some recommendations on how Oman can improve its performance in future editions of the barometer.
The first-ever data protection law in Oman was published in the Official Gazette this very morning. The Omani law appears to be a standard data protection law that distinguishes between data controllers and data processors, grants data subjects a set of rights including the right to access data and delete it, requires certain entities to appoint a data protection officer, and imposes very severe financial penalties.
We just updated our annual royal decree open data dataset to include royal decrees that His Majesty issued in the year 2021, and we thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to examine the legal developments in the country through the numbers. This post looks at how the number of royal decrees issued last year compares to previous years, and provides a breakdown of the categories of royal decrees issued in 2021.
Why public utility companies and government-owned companies must publish open data.
The government of Oman has put a significant amount of effort into promoting the release of open data by government entities. This effort should not be focused only on the government itself but must expand to reach public utility companies and government-owned companies, especially as the number of these companies, and the amount of data they control, continues to grow.
The government of Oman operates through a culture of secrecy, where everything is assumed to be confidential unless proven otherwise. This culture restricts the ability of the government to be truly open, and substantially limits the flow of information between and within government entities. This secrecy is a result of a number of factors, such as the lack of proper governance structures for decision-making within most government entities, the unjustified fear around any security-related issue, and the frequently misunderstood Law on the Classification of State Records and Governance of Protected Places (the “Classification Law”).
GCC countries have invested significant resources in developing national data portals, but most of these portals have yet to publish a single dataset relating to the biggest global pandemic of our lifetimes, COVID-19. Instead of utilising their familiar and tested platforms for releasing data, GCC countries launched independent dashboards for making COVID-19 data available to the public. The issue with this approach is that these new dashboards fail to comply with the most basic principles of open data. This has limited the ability of members of public to use this data in ways that would otherwise have contributed to managing the crisis.
The Omani government has reacted swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic and has shared with the public substantial amounts of data in regard to the cases, recoveries, deaths, and vaccinations. However, regrettably, the COVID data published by the Omani government does not comply with the majority of principles of open data, and this limits the benefits and utility of this data.
Today, the Ministry of Transport, Communications, and Information Technology issued a new policy on government use of AI technology. Similar to other policies issued by the MTCIT, this document is not legally binding it is essentially a form of instructions and recommendations for government entities.
The policy appears to have been finalised last June and is addressed to government entities only. It sets out six very high level principles for the use of AI: inclusiveness, human-centrism, accountability, fairness, transparency, and safety.
The key concrete policy provisions include:
A requirement to undertake a risk assessment in regard to the use of AI (but no details as to when such a risk assessment should be done, if it is a one-off requirement or a periodic requirement).
A requirement to ensure that no AI bias takes place and disclose to those affected by the AI system of the existence of such a system and the impact it may have on them.
A requirement to obtain prior approval of those affected by the AI system.
The policy also briefly mentions a requirement to comply with open data policies.
You can read the Arabic version of the policy on this link.
Journalism has seen an increasingly growing trend of using data to produce stories, enhance reporting, and enable cross-checking. The trend is designed to increase the accuracy of reporting and ultimately win over the public’s trust. Coined as “data journalism”, this newer form of news reporting involves broad practices from using big data or open data in order to uncover stories, to using analytics and coding in order to identify relationships and predict future trends.
Supported by the government’s open data efforts, Oman is riding the data journalism wave and witnessing a paradigm shift in its local journalism. This is seen from young independent journalist’s shift away from conservative reporting that relies on publishing official statements towards investigative reporting. With this new approach, independent journalists go on fact-finding missions relying on open data sources to explain government decisions and to provide its readership with greater context in a simple and digestible manner.
Atheer and WAF are two independent Omani news outlets that have written investigative pieces using what are effectively open datasets. In one piece, Atheer examined the relationship between the newly established Private Office and the Diwan of Royal Court by analysing all royal decrees issued from the 1970s onwards that either determined or modified the mandate of the Diwan of Royal Court. The research for this piece was conducted using Qanoon.om, an independent website for publishing royal decrees in open format. Qanoon.om relies on data from the official website of the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs which, although does not publish its data in technically open format, does make them available free of charge. The piece by Atheer would not have been possible without the government data published by the Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs, and the government data proved to be useful despite not satisfying the technical standards for open data. In another piece, WAF examined the expansion in government-owned companies in the former five-year plan by analysing company data from the website of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Investment Promotion and the website of Muscat Clearing and Depository and then commenting on this government trend.
Although we have yet to see sophisticated forms of data journalism in Oman that rely on analytics or other advanced data methods, open data journalism has proved to be a significant enabler of the Omani government’s primary vision – the development of an empowered knowledge-based society. Wider adoption of open data through the release of more datasets that are free of charge and in easily processable formats would no doubt continue to directly contribute to a richer journalism industry.
Legislation might not be an obvious topic to explore from an open data perspective, but it is regularly considered by international open data indicators as a key dataset that governments should prioritize publishing on the internet in a manner that complies with open data principles. Legislation is one of the most important pieces of data that the government generates and publishes as having access to the law is one of the most fundamental rights in all societies and legal systems.
The government of Oman has made significant efforts in publishing its legislation on the internet and laws can be downloaded free of charge from the website of the Ministry of Justice of Legal Affairs. In fact, the government has recently stopped publishing the Official Gazette (the publication in which laws are made available to the public) in hardcopy format and makes it available exclusively as a free digital download.
From an open data perspective, legislation in Oman is uniquely automatically deemed legally open because the Omani copyright law excludes legislation from copyright protection and makes it part of the public domain. This allows anyone to copy it, re-utilise it, and sell it without the need to seek the permission of the government or pay them any fees.
Legislation is also published systematically and in a timely manner on the internet, making this vital government dataset very accessible and useful to society. However, legislation published by the government still does not comply with certain technical aspects of the principles of open data especially in regard to machine-readability and structure. In particular, legislation is usually published as PDFs that do not easily allow users to copy the content from them, that are difficult to search, and that are unavailable for download in bulk, all of which make this data inaccessible and undiscoverable.
Notwithstanding the technical shortcomings of the legislation data that the government publishes, the fact that the government releases this data on the internet without copyright restrictions has enabled both civil society and the private sector to utilise the data and fill the usability gaps left by the government. This can be seen on civil society projects such as Qanoon.om (a project I co-founded) and Oman Legal Network, as well as private sector projects such as Mohamoon, all of which build on the data openly made available by the government to create more usable solutions for accessing the law.
The openness of legislation data in Oman and the efforts of the government in making the contents of the Official Gazette available in a timely manner on the internet set an example for publishers of other types of government data to release their data openly. This should be celebrated as a success story in releasing government data in Oman.