Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 13 December 2019

Sharing information for a bold, new tomorrow

Open data networks are at the heart of the Ghadan 21 initiative, which aims to bring a better quality of life to all Abu Dhabi residents

Data is the oil of the future. Getty
Data is the oil of the future. Getty

Abu Dhabi’s population as measured in the census year of 1975 was 211,812. In 2005, that figure had grown to 1.4 million. By 2015, it was estimated to be 2.8 million. Last week, the Census Project 2020 was launched by the Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi. The centre plans to collect data on Emiratis and residents and issue statistical indices for monitoring the emirate’s rapid population increase. Advanced technologies will be utilised to ensure accuracy and speed when collecting data, it says.

It is interesting that we are heading into a census year at this time, when data – how we collect it, use it, protect it and, most important of all, share it – is at the forefront of people’s minds, not just in the UAE but around the world.

Information may have been power in the 16th century, to paraphrase the English philosopher Francis Bacon. Over time, this has definitely evolved. As alliances and partnerships show, today and in history, whether in wartime or in business, those that can judiciously pool their knowledge ultimately succeed. Sharing information is in fact today’s real power. In this era of digital leaks, hacks and whistleblowers, no one can really “own” information anyway. As we have continuously built up our use of the internet these past three decades, the new volumes of information gathered about what humans want, do, think about and follow, has mushroomed and also come from everywhere – all of us, every second, minute, hour and day.

This has thrown up many talking points related to data and as the big technology companies are discovering, even data they think is theirs is actually not and there are demands that they pay the users from whom they have gleaned this knowledge.

Open data is the present and the future. We have not just been accumulating more data than ever before since the early 1990s, the advent of the digital age is also teaching us that we are only now beginning to understand that we can make better use of it.

We also see that the hoarding of information and knowledge doesn’t help anyone in the long term. Yes, there are always national and corporate security matters that must be protected, but I am talking about a broader culture of transparency and collaboration to help us all to make more informed and better decisions. This starts both at the bottom with consumers and, simultaneously, at the top with governments.

The hoarding of data and knowledge doesn’t help anyone in the long term

In Abu Dhabi, the Ghadan 21 economic stimulus programme has put an open data culture at its heart. We have already had fresh official information provided on the emirate’s property market and on the environment this past month, for example. More is to come, no doubt, particularly now that a census is on the horizon.

Attached to this shift is an emphasis on investing in research and development for the wider benefit of the economy.

While the total Ghadan 21 commitment of Dh50 billion over three years is aimed at spurring private sector activity, the plan goes beyond providing short-term liquidity and towards a longer-term confidence. The diversification of any economy away from a reliance on natural resources such as oil and towards a more knowledge-driven one requires that the new resource be data and that this resource is maximised for its value. Just like oil has been in Abu Dhabi this past half century. Ultimately, the aim of Ghadan 21 is to help improve the quality of life in Abu Dhabi. To do that, you need to have access to data and information to inform effective policymaking. You also need to encourage investment.

Business hates nothing more than uncertainty. It wants to be able to project and forecast with a sense of what might happen.

The government has heard this message loud and clear. By embracing a more open data culture, Abu Dhabi can put itself at the forefront of emerging markets, better able to compete for foreign direct investment. This can also help entrepreneurs and start-ups. Information is not power if it is left solely to the few. Sharing and collaborating and pooling our knowledge will help us all.

The benefits of sharing data include supporting innovation as new services and applications are created, the broader pickup in scientific research, more accurate economic forecasting, giving investors greater confidence and reducing inefficiency and opportunities for corruption.

The important factors to keep in mind include; can all this data be made available to all? Can it be made available in its primary form as collected at source? Is it timely? Is it in a form that can be processed automatically by machines? Can it be provided without licensing fees? And is it available online?

Most government institutions in the UAE are committed broadly to open data policies and it is emphasised in federal law. Companies are also coming round to the idea. This is just the start of what will be an exciting and enlightening future.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Updated: July 17, 2019 04:09 PM