This post examining the development of open government and open data in Uruguay comes from Daniel Carranza, co-founder of DATA Uruguay and consultant in OpenGov and eGov. Last August, Daniel joined a delegation from AGESIC (the Uruguayan agency for government innovation), organized by the United Nations Division for Public Administration and Development Management, that traveled to the United States to learn more about open government data (OGD) and municipal governance, and open data for smart cities. During the trip, the delegation met with faculty and staff at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and with government officials at the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology. This post originally appeared on the Ash Center's Challenges to Democracy blog.
Edited by James Pagano
As a small country sandwiched between two South American giants, Uruguay has forged its identity as an underdog that regularly outperforms expectations. This identity ranges from unexpected sporting wins in the 1950’s, an unexpected legal win against a multinational tobacco behemoth this year, and regular outperformance of regional leaders on a series of economic and social indicators.
Although Uruguay usually warrants little attention, it has demonstrated time and again the ability to surprise and innovate. In keeping with its hard-earned identity, Uruguay has led its regional counterparts in the adoption and promotion of open government. Its adoption of open government has allowed Uruguay to lead the region in creating social value and informed government decision-making through the adoption of transparent processes and technological innovation.
Open government seeks to foster participation, transparency, and collaboration between governments and citizens, capitalizing on the promise of new technology to better serve constituents. Although they may not even realize it, Uruguayans are starting to benefit from something that many skeptics have long challenged open government to provide: real impact that helps improve lives and the conditions for development.
Emergence of Open Government in Uruguay: A Bottom-Up Process with a Social Focus
Peers in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) view Uruguay as a regional leader in open government, and the movement has scored a number of major successes in the country; however, the concept barely receives any attention in political discourse. In fact, Uruguay’s entrance into the open government scene occurred in a fairly unusual manner that has set the tone and established the relationships for the community that continues to drive open government.
Unlike in neighboring countries, open government began in Uruguay primarily as a bottom-up process, which has played a major role in its success. Because open government initiatives began organically, the open government community in Uruguay has been able to avoid political inference, posturing, and oversized promises based around technological innovation. This has also helped to insulate the Open Government Working Group.
In staying beneath the political fray, the working group, formed by government, civil society and academia, continues to be comprised mostly by experts and activists, each committed to policy change and relatively uninterested in short-term political battles. The working group’s low profile and lack of political interference has allowed it to operate with relative autonomy and in a collaborative manner for the last 5-7 years.
The collaboration, proximity, and an openness to work across sectors that uniquely characterizes Uruguayan society has also helped to spur the adoption of open government. The country’s small and relatively close-knit population allows normal citizens to interact with the government and public services frequently. The accessibility of government officials also serves to diminish the glamour often associated with government work in other countries.
As such, government work in Uruguay is done in a much more horizontal manner, with less emphasis on formality and protocol. Further, citizens demand that public officials remain accessible, and thus politicians make conscious efforts to promote their own accessibility, from personally answering phone calls and to spontaneous meetings on the street. This unusually high level of accessibility has allowed for extremely close collaboration between government and civil society.
Perhaps most important to the emergence of open government in Uruguay is the movement’s focus on human development—the idea of “expanding the richness of human life, rather than simply the richness of the economy in which human beings live.” While this focus has characterized the open government movement in Latin America, Uruguay’s approach contrasts surprisingly with many open government efforts taking place in other parts of the world.
Timing has also been crucial to the success of open government in Uruguay. When open data, and later open government, began to emerge, Uruguay was in the midst of a strong cycle of economic growth and accompanying political reforms aimed at modernizing government. The context provided fertile ground for NGOs interested in freedom of information (FOI) such as CAinfo, to push the open government agenda. Passage of a FOI Law in 2008 along with the growth of civil society organizations, such as DATA Uruguay, led to the launch of the first local and national open data portals in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Open Government Success Stories
The success of open government is clearly illustrated by the kind of projects that have flourished in Uruguay. The Open Land Registry (Catastro Abierto) initiative, a “star” OGP commitment that runs parallel to full digitalization and resulted in better and faster service, through open data and open services; PorMiBarrio.uy a citizen report platform deeply integrated to Montevideo’s local government systems through open services; and PreciosUY, one of the few private sector cases that helps consumers find lower prices at a time when inflation is among the countries main concerns.
Perhaps most successful of all was ATuServicio.uy, a bottom-up collaboration between civil society and government aimed at solving a human development challenge around public services. The website was co-created by the Public Health Ministry and DATA Uruguay, with the support of the Latin American Open Data Initiative (ILDA) and Avina Foundation to foster informed decision-making when choosing health service providers/insurance.
ATuServicio.uy has been especially significant in Uruguay because citizens are only allowed to change their healthcare providers during the month of February. As a result, during the shortest month of the year, all health service providers concentrate their marketing efforts to citizens who lack sufficient information to make informed choices.
In an effort to improve consumer decision making, the Ministry started publishing detailed spreadsheets with data on each provider—these spreadsheets were never downloaded more than 500 times. DATA Uruguay used the Ministry’s data in a first attempt to create a user-friendly comparison tool, which led to a dialogue between DATA Uruguay and the Ministry of Health.
ATuServicio.uy emerged as a platform that combined the Ministry’s expertise in health, newly available data processing tools, and DATA Uruguay’s experience in visualization, usability, communications and publication of Open Data. The result was user-growth from 500 downloads of health data before ATuServicio to around 75,000 downloads in 2016. For context, 63,130 people actually changed health service providers during February 2016.
Beyond user-growth, the project showed significant impact in the quality of data through transparency (errors were discovered by users, providers and the Ministry itself) and most surprisingly, helped to lower prices. After its first edition in 2015 caught providers by surprise, several opted to decrease their prices in January 2016, knowing that the tool would allow for easy comparison and give them a competitive advantage.
Overcoming Institutional Resistance to Change
Of course, not everything works out perfectly. Across government, challenges such as data collection issues, classification errors, and lack of internal reuse persist. It’s important to remember that even with fast-paced advances in eGovernment, Uruguay—as with the rest of Latin America—is a relatively young state that returned to democracy only 31 years ago, and lived through one of its worst economic crises as recently as 2002.
Paper files and legacy computer systems are common in many areas of government, and different departments face persistent resource scarcity. A lot of valuable data is simply not collected, trapped in some obscure file, or is forgotten about entirely. In Parliament, for example, dozens of civil society initiatives have failed due to the absence or inaccessibility of data, and where efforts for reform have had very little impact without the political will to tackle infrastructure weaknesses and cultural change.
To help solve these challenges, a Uruguayan delegation recently visited Harvard Kennedy School as part of a study tour with the “Strengthening of Capacities of Developing Countries to Provide Access to Information for Sustainable Development through Open Government Data” project, implemented by the Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM) of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA).
With visits to governments and organizations in Boston, New York and Albany, the tour provided new insight into those areas with the most opportunity for improvement, such as data collection (and its automation, leading to Open Data by default), analytics, internal reuse, and political leadership. Beyond the study tour, this program has proved of great value in accelerating the necessary sensitization process within the public sector, and showing the need to develop concrete Open Data policies.
Equipped with that knowledge and with a new normative framework that makes Open Data publication mandatory for all government agencies, Uruguay looks to continue to lead its neighbors in the adoption and effective use of open government. The civil society organizations and the government will continue to collaborate to firmly institutionalize open data, open government and more accessible services.