This blog post was originally published on the Open Data Charter’s page on Medium in May 2020.
The Sultanate of Oman is about to embark on a new development mission as it puts the final touches on Oman Vision 2040 — an ambitious roadmap for transforming Oman to a knowledge-based society under the leadership of a brand new Sultan. This comprehensive plan has creativity, competitiveness, sustainability, and state responsibility as the primary four themes of the 12 national priorities of the vision that range from education and health to participatory law-making and effective regulation by the government.
Given the serious challenges that currently face Oman economically and those resulting from COVID-19, Oman must use all the tools at its disposal to realise its vision for the future, and open data should certainly be taken seriously as a cross-cutting tool for realising this vision.
The contribution that open data plays in regard to priorities relating to government efficiency and transparency is obvious. When a government commits to publishing open data this means that the government will proactively release to the public the data it holds in a technical format that is easy to consume and process and that it will allow members of the public to use and re-publish this data without any legal restrictions. When government data becomes publicly and widely available, the government itself would be in a better position to make informed decisions based on facts and numbers, and not on assumptions or the whim of individuals. Furthermore, agencies such as the State Audit Institute as well as the Shura Council would be able to evaluate compliance and performance of the government more easily.
The government budget is a great example of data that Oman is already publishing as open data. By law, the Ministry of Finance is required to make a detailed projected government budget available to the public to show how much money each government agency is expected to make and spend in any given year. Not only is this practice uncommon in the region and Oman has been doing it for decades, but the Ministry of Finance of Oman has been putting effort in recent years in publishing this data as open data released in a machine-readable format (Excel) to allow analytics, journalists, academics, and anybody else interested in Omani affairs to analyse the numbers, republish them, or use them in any manner they please.
Open data is also a resource that can be tapped into to support creativity and innovation in Oman. The Omani government, like all other governments around the world, creates and collects significant amounts of data as part of its daily business of governance, but most of this data ends up collecting dust literally in box files or digitally in hard drives that are not available to the public. If this information were available to the public, it would be possible to use it to make business decisions, build apps, or even repurpose it and sell it. Open data can also be a direct catalyst for the adoption of some fourth industrial revolution technologies. For example, artificial intelligence works on data, and without an abundant pool of Omani data (released by the government or otherwise), there will be nothing to for AI to analyse, learn from, or transform. Open data requires the government to make the data it publishes to be machine-readable (so that it can be read by AI technologies) and that it is legal for everyone to use it for commercial and non-commercial purposes.
The Ministry of Manpower of Oman has embraced open data as a key pillar in its entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. The Ministry of Manpower is the owner of a number of diverse datasets that range from employment rates to workplace accidents. This ministry also supervises technical colleges around the country and is mandated with supporting their graduates in identifying self-employment and entrepreneurship opportunities. To achieve this goal, the Ministry of Manpower has developed a comprehensive open data program for the general public with special public engagement campaigns and competitions for the students of those technical colleges.
Oman believes that part of what makes it unique is its authentic and distinctive Omani culture and heritage. Therefore, it is no wonder that Oman Vision includes the preservation of Omani identity and culture as a key priority that needs to be realised along with universal priorities such as sustainability and economic diversification. While it might not be immediately obvious, open data can also play a role in the promotion and preservation of Omani culture, by facilitating its dissemination and making it easy for Omani content creators to use, remix, and re-purpose Omani music, art, and literature.
An example of this use of open data can already be seen through the open data program of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, which is attempting to make as much of the information it holds available for download as open data on its website. A lot of the data that the Ministry of Heritage is releasing as open data is traditional open data that includes statistics and numbers about its cultural programs. However, a hidden gem in the open data catalogue of the Ministry of Heritage and Culture is its open audio library, which has over 100 professionally recorded Omani traditional songs and musical pieces that are available to download free of charge on SoundCloud and can be legally used for any commercial or non-commercial purposes under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. This trove of Omani culture can be a useful resource to Omani YouTubers and other content creators who need soundtracks and audio assets for their works and can contribute to promoting and preserving Omani culture on the internet.
These are only a few examples of how open data can directly contribute to the realisation of the themes and priorities of Oman Vision 2040. Oman has already put a significant amount of effort in open data by creating a government open data policy, an open government licence, an open data award for e-government excellence, multiple government-sponsored open data hackathons and competitions, and a national open data symposium. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, especially in regard to user engagement and raising awareness of the existence of the open data repositories that the government has been publishing. Oman’s efforts at releasing open data would also benefit from having a systematic approach to the release of this data by focusing on publishing for a purpose, and would also benefit from having mechanisms to ensure the sustainability of these efforts and the continuous updating of the datasets published.
Notwithstanding the economic and health challenges that Oman is currently facing, this is still an extremely exciting time for the country, with a brand new vision, a new leadership, and vast opportunities ahead. Open data surely can play an instrumental role in supporting Oman’s ambitions.