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Perspectives on Malaysia's Open Data journey: Open Data Institute interview

AvantiKumar | May 11, 2015
In an interview in two parts, UK Open Data Institute's Richard Stirling and Malaysia's national ICT agency MDeC's Dr Karl Ng discuss the challenges and opportunities of adopting an Open Data initiative.

To drive Open Data and speed up the adoption Big Data analytics (BDA) among ministries and agencies in Malaysia, the national ICT agency Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC) recently signed an agreement with the UK's non-profit organisation Open Data Institute (ODI) as well as announcing a National Open Data Champions initiative.

During the official announcement in Putrajaya, which was made in collaboration with the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) and officiated by the chief secretary to the Government of Malaysia, MDeC's chief executive officer Dato' Yasmin Mahmood said: "Open Data is simply free, non-personal data by the government that can be used and shared by anyone. Local entrepreneurs and businesses can use these data to derive trends and insights that can help them inform on innovative business solutions and models - the primary goal of the National Big Data Analytics (BDA) Initiative that MDeC is driving."

In a two-part interview, Computerworld Malaysia asked Open Data Institute's International Director Richard Stirling to give a broad perspective on Open Data initiatives with an emphasis on what key learnings Malaysia could adopt on the Open Data journey. The second part delves into local plans and expectations with Ir Dr Karl Ng, director, Innovation Capital for MDeC.

Richard Stirling, International Director of Open Data Institute (ODI) in Malaysia

Photo - Richard Stirling, International Director of Open Data Institute, during his visit to Malaysia.


Could you start by giving your take on the backstory to the Open Data initiatives announced in Putrajaya, and what immediate benefits you expect for the government agencies involved?

Open data is part of a global movement in response to a changing world. Data is being collected all around us, as systems become more automated, and the events that previously passed unremarked are now recorded and tracked.

Government is one of the great collectors of data. It uses it to take decisions, to plan and to provide essential services. And unlike oil or rubber or steel, the value of data does not diminish when it is used. Its value increases. Data can be used again and again in different contexts. Each time creating new value and creating new opportunities.

Making data open allows this value to be realised. Open data is data which is made available for anyone to access, use and share. This means it is the perfect foundation for open innovation - it makes creating new products and services much faster. There is no need to ask permission to innovate.

We expect those immediate benefits to flow from that open innovation - people from outside of government using the data and finding new ways to solve problems.

How and in which areas will these Open Data initiatives deliver value to Malaysians?

This is a long-term play. Open data helps to create the right environment for innovation to happen. It doesn't cause it to happen in and of itself. Innovation comes from people having good ideas and building new solutions to problems. In this way the open data initiative will go hand in hand with other activities like the Big Apps Challenge, the incubators in Cyberjaya or the government's Big Data Initiative which will help bring these innovations to market.

Our experience in the UK has been that open data is a relatively small programme which creates a large impact.  Open data is driving huge change in the way we live our lives in the UK - how we hold ourselves to account as a society, how we get from A to B, how we can be more sustainable, how we choose where to live or which school to send our children to. Open data powers all these.

For example, our transport information was opened up in London and there are now more than 500 new applications created helping people to get from A to B. London's transport organisation no longer has to spending money making its own. The Return on Investment was over 50 to 1. One of our start-ups, ODI start up Transport API - has been at the forefront of this area. 

Another of our startups,, has been working in the area of flooding. Using open data they have been able to bring together data about river levels from government and community sensors to enable accurate flood information to be gathered.

By opening up prioritised government data and giving people the opportunity to provide innovative solutions, Malaysia will build a sustainable open data culture, allowing informed decision-making for public good.

How do you ensure the data is completely anonymised? Have there been any privacy challenges in other parts of the world and how were these overcome?

Privacy is an important consideration when making data appropriate to be published as open data and anonymity is instrumental in protecting personal information. Open data has the power to make data that was once too sensitive to access safe to use, yielding impactful services.

A good example of this is the ODI's collaborative work with the UK's three largest peer-to-peer (P2P) lending platforms (Zopa, RateSetter, and Funding Circle). Together with banking professionals and visualisation experts, we facilitated an industry first, publishing financial data with an ODI Open Data Certificate to determine the regional geography of P2P lending in the UK. The data identified key findings in P2P lending with southern England heavily lending to a surprisingly balanced portfolio of receivers across the nation.

In order to make the data that included personal information safe to use, we conducted a privacy impact assessment which highlighted we needed to aggregate postcodes to "outcode level" (8,600 households on average) thus keeping personal information protected and valuable data accessible to all.

What are some of the other lessons Malaysia can learn from the UK's Open Data experience?

Collaboration has been crucial to successful open data innovation. To draw down the benefits you need people outside to work with the data and create something amazing. At the ODI we convene different people, including start-ups, SMEs and enterprise, academia, public sector and government. Innovation often comes from cross-fertilisation, and the ODI helps connect people to catalyse open data culture.

The outcomes should deliver social, economic and environmental benefit to everyone.

Data skills are crucial. We need to increase data literacy so that everyone can understand what and where data is, how it affects them, and why it is relevant. As part of our partnership with MDEC the ODI will provide training that allows open data proficiency and self-sufficiency, to educate others.

How has the ICT industry helped in the UK's Open Data story and are there any plans to involve industry in Malaysia, given the often-referred to "Public-Private Partnership" strategy?
ICT is a great enabler for change and open data is inherently a subject driven by technology. The best way of realising the benefits from open data is to adopt a position of collaboration with industry and the technology sector - to come to a shared understanding of the most productive areas to work in.

In the UK there are a number of mechanisms for getting this insight. The Open Data User Group has representatives from Industry and Civil Society and helps the Cabinet Office prioritise data sets. There are priority areas providing universal benefit across countries, highlighted at the G8 and the work of the ODI itself in bringing industry, academia and government together in a neutral venue.

Looking at Malaysia's Open Data implementation in the first year or two:  what are potential pitfalls and issues that should be top of the project management agenda?
There are certain issues that should be ongoing priorities for any Government committed to open data:

  • Focusing on publishing the most important datasets in accessible formats - i.e., those that offer the maximum opportunities to innovators and citizens - geospatial data, transport data, spending data for example. These are the building blocks for the public-focused services of tomorrow.
  • Improving support for open data start-ups - this might be through incubation schemes like the ODI's startup programme, by organising hackathons, or networking opportunities.
  • Working with industry, academia and startups to promote open data, and encourage the publication of open data from the private sector.


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