Open data: these Kosovar activists are using coding to transform the government

Open data: these Kosovar activists are using coding to transform the government

8 February 2019
Images: Open Data Kosovo

Blerta Thaçi began her journey to change Kosovo for the better back in 2015. By day, she was working as an Android developer. After hours, she poured over projects dedicated to bringing reams of data held by the Kosovo government into the public domain.

The fledgling project was called Open Data Kosovo: a nonprofit organisation that uses tech to strengthen local governments and civil society. It focuses solely on the power of data in public hands, ensuring that information is open and easy to access and understand. Usually, that means building from the ground up — creating software to store, sort, and display digital information, training and educating others, and analysing data for reports and projects.

“People thought that there was an office and this was my job, but it was just me, working in my free time,” she says. Thaçi was eventually convinced to take on the role of Executive Director, heading a team of 12 and taking home the title of Forbes’ Europe’s 30 Under 30 for 2018. But the organisation still remains, at its heart, a passion project. “I’m proud that we have a chance to be involved building our country,” she says. “We are facing challenges but we are learning so much. If we were 50 years in the future, we wouldn’t have this chance.”

Thaçi describes Open Data Kosovo’s range of interests as “niche”. Its strong tech focus means that the organisation is often unable to apply for certain funding, and has to work hard to find the right people to work with. But despite its supposedly narrow field of interest, there are few parts of life in Kosovo that the project hasn’t touched. It has built apps to tackle sexual harassment and to track border backlogs. It built the government’s open procurement system from scratch. It trains journalists on how they can use data to find stories, and officials on how they can analyse figures to boost efficiency.

“If we don’t show that we are capable and can deliver ... that can affect generations to come. We have a responsibility to set the bar.”

Many of the projects are crafted to help Kosovo develop as a new nation state by emphasising practical skills. Laws requiring government institutions to publish their data have already been on the books for several years, for example, but without real know-how, those figures too often remain languishing on government servers.

That is a disservice both to the country’s nascent national institutions and the Kosovar people, says Thaçi. In the modern age, digital infrastructure is just as important as roads, trains, or airports. “Kosovo is a new country,” she says. “Officials are not well-trained and they don’t have the data skills or understanding.” This lack of skills means that the country loses out on valuable opportunities. In one example, Open Data Kosovo revamped how the country presented and stored its economic stats — transforming it from a data dump to a valuable resource for outside businesses looking to invest into the country.

“I truly believe that technology will help the government be more efficient,” says Thaçi. “This way they will be held accountable based on real data. What has made us so successful thus far is that we have kept a positive approach when reaching out to institutions. Now institutions are the ones contacting us.”

With new projects to launch in 2019, the group now wants to shift their focus away from central government and on to education. At its heart is a new drive to build software to track attainment in the country’s high schools — but Open Data Kosovo is also keen to do its bit in shaping the country’s future generations.

“We are already building a platform where we are can publish courses online, which can then be accessed from across the country,” says Thaçi. “A lot of people will be put off coming to formal computing classes — maybe they can’t travel into the city, maybe they feel their professional English isn’t good enough. [But] a skilled workforce is very much in demand. We need to give more skills to young people. There is huge potential for investment in this sphere, independent from the government, but if we don’t showcase that we are capable and can deliver, we might risk losing that trust; that can affect generations to come. We have a responsibility to set the bar.”

As with much of Open Data Kosovo’s work, it’s all about looking to the future. “All of our projects are now with public institutions,” she says. “They get to have the source code which they can upgrade and maintain. Our solutions are not finished projects.”

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