Lebanese volunteers strive to help the areas hardest hit by the explosion, distributing food, clean water, and COVID-19 protection supplies to the most vulnerable in Beirut on August 12, 2020. (Photo by Enes Canli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Analysis

The Promise of Open Data in Lebanon

When the Lebanese government hired the New-York-based consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal in July to conduct a forensic audit of the country’s Central Bank and study the scale of Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis, many were skeptical. The forensic audit is one of the key demands of the International Monetary Fund that Lebanon must comply with in order to receive a direly-needed loan to stem the country’s collapse. In November, the company indeed withdrew from the task after not receiving requested documents from the Central Bank. In fact, the Central Bank governor stated that only 43 percent of the information requested was provided. The remaining 57 percent were withheld under the guise that Lebanon’s banking secrecy laws prevent their disclosure. 

This episode encapsulates the lack of transparency in the Lebanese state, which could be described as a tightly-locked black box” that divulges little information on how decisions are made within the public sector, how public funds are spent, which companies are contracted, and the data it collects and stores—whether on socioeconomic indicators, pollution and the environment, infrastructure and transportation, energy, or any other sector.

For over a decade, governments all over the world have been pushed by tech-savvy activists and movements to use the latest technologies and digital tools to open up their black boxes” and make their data publicly accessible in easy-to-read and usable formats. The ideals behind the concept of open data are venerable: with public data being available, transparency would be promoted and corruption reduced; innumerable data would be accessible to policymakers and researchers for sharing and crafting better policies and improving decision-making; and the public at large would be better informed on governmental decisions and how paid taxes are being channeled. Equipped with knowledge and data, citizens would thus be empowered to make their demands more forcefully.

Amidst an unprecedented economic collapse and the widespread acknowledgment that the status quo characterized by a non-transparent public sector has been irredeemably broken, can Lebanons newly nascent open data movement push for creating a culture of transparency and data sharing across the country?

Transparency… What transparency?

In December 2018, the Lebanese government submitted its combined 23rd and 24th periodic reports to the committee that monitors the proper implementation of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Among its many contents, the document details a set of measures that Lebanon has taken over the preceding few years to improve governance. The report mentions the passage of the Access to Information (ATI) Law in 2017 and that a dedicated website on the right of access to information (www.accesstoinfformation.com)” was created. The title of the website not only features a glaring typo but more importantly, it simply does not exist. This is an illustration of the Lebanese states approach, or lack thereof, when it comes to promoting transparency.

The ATI Law was well-received upon its ratification by parliament in early 2017. It was hoped that this law would not only push public sector bodies to make their data publicly available and easily accessible, but that it would also pave the way for more robust investigative journalism that could uncover corruption. Indeed, when one looks at the laws contents, it deserves the praise for its clear and straightforward provisions. Any legal person, regardless of nationality, can submit information requests to the public sector (Article 1), and the public sector is detailed to mean any state agency, court, municipality, or private companies in which the Lebanese state owns a stake (Article 2). The requested data is expansive: written and electronic documents, audiovisual recordings, photographs, machine-readable documents, studies, reports, minutes of meetings, decrees, memos, archival documents and, perhaps most importantly, fiscal data and public contracts (Article 3). Public bodies are mandated to make their budgetary data available on their websites (Article 7) and to publish annual reports detailing all of the activities carried out during the year (Article 8).

The optimism that accompanied the passage of the ATI Law did not last. Gherbal Initiative, a non-profit transparency-promoting watchdog group, has systematically surveyed the extent to which the ATI Law is being properly applied—and  their  findings are not encouraging: in their first report from August 2018, out of 133 public bodies to whom ATI requests were submitted, only 34 responded, and of these, only 19 complied with the legal 15-day response deadline. While the findings of the 2019 subsequent report are slightly better, the overall picture is still not encouraging. The non-existent accesstoinfformation.com” website, coupled with Gherbal Initiatives findings, highlight how the Lebanese state was never serious about properly implementing the ATI Law, increasing transparency, or making data publicly available.

This is unsurprising given Lebanons history of deeply-entrenched corruption, particularly following the signing of the Taif Accord to end the civil war. An insidious agreement between the countrys myriad political parties and political elites was made whereby each one turns a blind eye to the others corruption. From unlicensed politically-tied quarries destroying the countrys natural landscape for untaxed profits to overly inflated public infrastructure and waste management contracts provided to poorly qualified politically-connected firms, corruption festered all across the public sector. A symbol of this post-war corruption would be the Port of Beirut, long disparagingly referred to as Ali Babas Cave” due to its extremely corrupt management operating outside the scrutiny or supervision of any monitoring agencies or the public. With petty and large bribery being the norm, the port was the venue for the smuggling and trade of all kinds of illicit goods. Amidst such a landscape of corruption, opacity, little-to-no monitoring, and blatant disregard for the public good, it is unsurprising that large quantities of dangerous chemicals would have been stored in unsafe conditions, leading to an industrial accident.

Faced by highly non-transparent state and widespread corruption plaguing the public sector, coupled with a poorly implemented ATI Law, civil society has in recent years stepped in to show how data–be it from public or private sector sources–can be instrumentalized for the public good.

A budding Open Data movement in Lebanon?

The magnitude of the blast at the Port of Beirut and the dramatic humanitarian crisis that unfolded pushed many to respond immediately. From individual volunteers and small NGOs and charities to international organizations and public bodies, many efforts were exerted to provide assistance to the blasts survivors. Many lamented, however, the lack of coordination among the wide array of organizations providing assistance, which led to the duplication of many efforts and inadequate targeting of assistance. Anecdotal evidence shows that some victims were unintentionally neglected, while others received far more assistance than what they needed. Such problems may be prevented by having access to accurate, timely, and reliable data for better disaster management response by all actors involved. In this context, tech-savvy activists and volunteers came together to establish Open Map Lebanon (OML), an open data platform which sought to make the response to the blast more data-driven. OML contributed to launching the Beirut Recovery Map, which provides geospatial data on the infrastructural damage caused and charts reconstruction progress. The data was gathered by volunteers who took photographs of damaged buildings and relayed them to the map. OML also launched the 3W Beirut Explosion Map, which seeks to highlight who is doing what, where and ultimately better coordinate the humanitarian response between all actors involved. Both maps are currently being used by many organizations involved in the humanitarian response.

At a time when the ATI Law is poorly implemented and public bodies hardly disclose the data they hold, citizen-led initiatives are crucial for not only disaster management response—as is the case with OML—but also for broader anti-corruption objectives. The aforementioned Gherbal Initiative had already launched, over the past three years, several initiatives to promote transparency and make public data widely available. In April 2020, it launched El Lira, an open data platform that collates publicly available data on a wide array of issues—from public finances  and loans and grants Lebanon has received from the international community to data on Lebanons imports and exports, to name only a few. Similarly, the Open Data Lebanon platform, launched and managed by academics and tech-savvy activists on a voluntary basis, gathers data and documents from numerous sources from the public and private sectors, and makes them easily accessible. Both of these easy-to-use platforms are crucial for researchers, journalists, and everyday citizens.

Some recent government-led initiatives must also be highlighted: the Central Inspection Board collaborated with the private sector and international organizations and launched Impact, an open data platform that collects data from a wide array of public sources (such as municipalities and ministries) and makes them easily available and usable by the public, in hopes that such data-sharing may boost intra-governmental collaboration. Following the August 4 blast, the government established a Donor Coordination Platform which provides data on the in-kind assistance provided to Lebanon by the international community; and very recently, the Basil Fuleihan Institute, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of Finance launched Lebanon Citizen Budget, an online portal that allows anyone to easily make sense of public finances and understand where and how government funds are spent.

These open data platforms created by civil society and the public sector are noteworthy as they signify a budding push toward open data in Lebanon and a proactive measure to promote transparency of the public sector—and are therefore keys to fighting corruption and improving policymaking.

Long way to go

While there are many promises regarding open data in Lebanon, the open data movement remains in its infancy, and there are numerous challenges to its growth. 

For starters, engaging with open data requires a set of technical skills that not many researchers have, particularly those coming from social science backgrounds. Academic curricula in such fields generally do not include the notion of “open data” as a means through which to carry out research. Many academics, researchers, NGOs, and research institutes have a lot of valuable data but are either reluctant to share it, or are simply unaware of initiatives through which such data can be shared or of the benefits that are to be accrued. As a whole, a culture of openness, data sharing, and transparency has yet to take root firmly in Lebanon. This lack of cooperation and collaboration among these different stakeholders unfortunately leads to duplicated efforts, as many are often unaware of the work carried out by their peers and end up reinventing the wheel.”

The Lebanese public sector does collect a lot of data, but it is simply not easily accessible. Not only is the ATI Law barely abided by, but even the public bodies explicitly tasked with collecting data—such as the National Council For Scientific Research and its affiliated research centers—do not make their data open and easily accessible due to severe underfunding that leads them to sell the data in order to stay operative. The Central Administration of Statistics is poorly funded, its website significantly lacks user-friendliness, its information is severely outdated, and there are question marks about the accuracy and reliability of the data it provides. There is little coordination among public bodies themselves when it comes to data collection.

An important point to keep in mind when thinking about open data is the risk that any countrys political elites would co-opt” the term and create a sham” open data platform that gives the impression that their governments are striving for transparency. A study from 2019 highlights how notoriously corrupt and authoritarian governments in Central Asia adopted half-hearted open government” measures less out of a desire to reduce corruption and promote transparency, and more out of a desire to secure international legitimacy. As Lebanon is in dire need for funding from international financial institutions and donor countries, and as internal and external pressure is piling up on the countrys political elites to carry out meaningful structural reforms and seriously tackle corruption, it is not unlikely that they will try to use the rhetoric surrounding open government” and open data” to give off false hopes. Creating a sham governmental Open Data portal might serve to give the international community the impression that Lebanons political elites are serious about promoting transparency and tackling corruption. This would lead to extremely debilitating outcomes, most important of which would be delegitimizing the whole concept of open data in the country.

The potential for open data is enormous in Lebanon. Not only would it allow for much better crisis management and disaster responses, but it is a necessity to rebuild the Lebanese economy—as it is being increasingly recognized that open data can be a driver for economic growth—and tackle the humanitarian crisis in a much more effective and efficient manner. It could also lead to the detection of corruption—and hence to the partial unlocking of the governmental black box”—and to improving the quality of and speed through which policy research is undertaken. Researchers and academics, NGOs, journalists, private sector actors and concerned citizens, as well as public sector bodies seeking to enhance transparency must collaborate more and make their data accessible and open. The more such collaboration takes place, the more a culture of openness and transparency will manifest itself, and the more will the governmental black box” be gradually unlocked. Civil society-led efforts at promoting open data in the country, such as the ones already mentioned in this piece, are breaking new grounds. They must be supported at all costs.