Blog

Stay up-to-date with what we are doing

Open Data's Impact

How Ukraine Is Using Open Data to Tackle Corruption

Guest post from Dmytro Buhanevych, Program Coordinator at the Eurasia Foundation

Posted on 2nd of September 2021 by Dmytro Bukhanevych

Key Takeaways

  1. Digitalization of government plays a key role in democratization and increase in transparency and accountability in Ukraine
  2. Rigid methodological framework allows to analyze open data impact despite the lack of statistical or historical data
  3. Open data becomes the lifeblood for civil society watchdogs to detect corruption and simultaneously, improves processes in the cumbersome bureaucratic machine

Background

In the years since Ukraine's 2013 Euromaidan revolution, the civil society and Ukraine's Western partners undertook a number of projects which would galvanize democratization.

The key area of this process would have to be the eradication of corruption - Ukraine has invariably been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with the problem becoming endemic in Ukraine's bloated governmental sector.

Few tools are better at achieving greater transparency and accountability in the public sector, than the use of open data. In Ukraine's case this combines the benefits of providing a very active civil society with much needed resources, which often times leads to 'innovative and effective approaches to combating corruption', as was highlighted in the Report of the Expert Advisory Group on Anti-Corruption, Transparency and Integrity in Latin America and the Caribbean, INTER-AMERICAN DEVELOPMENT BANK 2018.

In Ukraine, dozens of open-data based products have emerged in a matter of a few years - mobile apps, interactive maps, analytics dashboards - almost all aimed at tackling corruption or improving governance.

But how does one know that they have an actual impact? As a researcher, how do you go beyond anecdotal evidence and arrive at a conceptual argument? Finally, how do you convince the officials holding the key to the data that there is benefit for all parties in having an open-by-default approach?

Approaching the research

Answering these questions posed a huge methodological problem for our research team at the TAPAS project in Ukraine. Lack of historical or statistical data (on corruption or data availability) favored a qualitative approach, and we zeroed in on a series of case studies to best showcase open data impact in Ukraine.

Given the scope of our project (we wanted to tackle issues ranging from fraudulent building permits to the healthcare system overhaul) - a rigid methodological framework was crucial.

The GovLab’s Open Data's Impact initiative, and especially, the Open Data in Developing Economies book, became that framework for our project - starting from the case study structure, measurements used and even down to specific interview questions. 

Getting dangerously close to the wrong side of the quote by Wilson Mizner: "If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research" additional literature was incorporated to what became a holistic methodology of open data anti-corruption impact analysis in Ukraine.

In purely practical terms this meant that with a limited timeframe and a large number of independent groups of researchers - each one of them was able to develop a case study not unlike assembling an IKEA piece of furniture - trimming down the time needed for desk research of legislature, questionnaire development and allowing to focus on an in-depth discussion of the unique application of open data and the real-world impact.

More than just streamlining the whole process, I believe that our approach went beyond a descriptive function and had a normative one - easily adopted and generalizable to, say, Eastern European region due to similarities in governance or to countries with similar levels of open data maturity level.

More than 10 case studies have been developed, each one looking at a certain issue and encompassing several products. Now they allow us to speak of some interesting general findings.

Assessing open data value

The anti-corruption value of some open-data-driven tools is easier to gauge than others. We've made a decision to avoid the relatively well-known projects, like the electronic procurement system Prozorro. It's impact has been widely publicized even outside of Ukraine and has been fairly straightforward to calculate - in the 5 years since the launch of the system the estimated savings of budget funds have surpassed 7 billion US dollars. The lion's share of the saved money would have been lost in corruption schemes.

Less glossy projects still make a significant difference. Ukrainian citizens got access to a state-funded medicine program and the National Health Service created an interactive map that allows patients to check whether their local pharmacy or hospital has those free-of-charge medicines. This eliminates the practice of charging the patients for medicines that have already been procured by taxpayers.

The technical complexity of the projects varies as well. Some are simple enough - for example, citizens can check whether a bus driver has an active license (another quite unique issue for Ukraine) by typing the license plate number on an official state portal. 

On the other end of the spectrum are projects (Ukrainian-language version only) that use satellite images from sources like NASA to track forest fires or even illegal logging in Ukraine — both issues of enormous proportions in the country.

The scale of projects varies as well - from a nation-wide infrastructure monitoring tool that analyzes state-funded contracts on road construction, for example, that has gone through over 6 billion US dollars-worth of deals so far, to a localized tool that maps abandoned historical buildings of a city and enables the citizens to push against the demolition (often illegal) of architectural legacy.

In hindsight, our research seems to confirm the main findings of the Open Data’s Impact project itself. The transparency in state procurement procedures, for example, may not stop ineffective use of public funds, but it sheds light on it for the first time. Journalists and activists can detect corruption in a swift way and demand accountability.

Economic opportunities generated by open data have played a less prominent role in our findings, however, some examples are promising. Open data on tax debt, for example, has enabled the blooming of a whole domain of competitive intelligence (Ukrainian-language version only), where potential business partners can analyze the reliability of their counterparts.

In an almost 'Gladwellian' fashion, the 'natural' evolution of institutions and the costly and time-consuming training of the bureaucratic apparatus that the developed world has gone through, can be sidestepped by underdogs like Ukraine, right into the age of digital governmental services, open-data by default registries of valuable information and minimization of meaningless (and often corruption-ridden) interactions and paperwork between the citizen and the state.

Moving forward

The issues Ukraine faces in transforming its governance are not unique. The last 7 years have shown that they are not insurmountable either.

The accumulation of evidence and historical data on open data impact will be translated into a more quantitative approach to its analysis - in the coming years, we'll be able to quantify and, most likely, find a statistically significant relationship between open data and corruption in Ukraine. This, in turn, should prove the vital role of open data in democratic governance, push for more ambitious open data policies, wider adoption of open data tools by the civil society, and, ultimately, lead to a more open society.

Read more

[Image Credit: IST Publishing, Sergiy Maidukov]

Back to the Blog

Supported by