Georges Labrèche, a student in the Graduate Program in International Affairs, is the Co-Founder and Chief Data Officer of Open Data Kosovo, an NGO that believes opening data is essential in establishing good governance, government transparency, and accountability. Recently, ODK received funding from the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) for a project focused on procurements at the municipal level. The project emphasizes youth engagement by organizing software development workshops for students in Computer Science and Software Engineering. In this manner, local youth work on data pertaining to their respective municipalities while gaining exposure to the problem of procurement fraud. The idea builds a link between strengthening their tech skills and understanding how they can use those skills for social good—in this case contributing to more transparency. Below, Georges describes how Open Data Kosovo grew out of his work on the International Field Program in Kosovo, and discusses what Open Data Kosovo is working on now.
In preparation the Kosovo International Field Program (IFP) during the summer of 2014 and with a background in tech, I read about Kosovo’s high internet penetration rate and the digital-awareness of 70% of the population. This high percentage of the tech-aware 20- and 30-something community in Kosovo triggered an entrepreneurial drive in me to check out the tech scene while I would be in Kosovo in order to assess if I could realistically get a start-up going. It was in the midst of researching Kosovo’s state-building process and its tech scene that I stumbled on what would become the subject of my thesis; digital diplomacy or, more distinctively, post-conflict, internationally-sponsored digital state-building. Most importantly however, the discovery of this phenomenon allowed me to embrace a truly multi-disciplinary vocation and escape a self-imposed dichotomy between a planned conclusion of my life as an engineer in favor of a dedication towards wherever a graduate degree in International Affairs would take me. Later that semester I embraced both worlds by writing a paper exploring the various interpretations of legal frameworks on the rule of armed conflict in cyber warfare.
Once in Kosovo, I got right to it. Working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where the country’s Digital Diplomacy Program was being managed and meeting with people from the local tech scene whom I had connected with via LinkedIn while I was still in New York. Assessing the local tech scene revealed that, although numerous and active, many of Kosovo’s young computer scientist and software engineers suffer from a gap in the academic space. This results in their low employability due to poor problem solving skills and a general lack of practical experiences. Rather than giving up on the venture, it was time to pivot and focus instead on creating an environment where the local tech community could acquire knowledge and experience on all aspects related to modern digital product development.
What resulted was an NGO called Open Data Kosovo. Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone. The tech community needed a space to experiment with ideas and, in doing so, enhance their digital skills. This space isn’t merely a physical one, but a digital one as well in form of data availability. Simply put, without data there is nothing to experiment with and Kosovo was lacking access to data resources. Data can come from anywhere which allows the tech community to pick and choose the field of work in which they want to experiment in and develop prototypes. For instance, three of our most successful projects have fostered collaborative and multi-disciplinary with institutional partners involved in procurement anti-corruption efforts, urban environment issues, and gender inequality.
Our first major project was implemented in partnership with the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, UNDP Kosovo, and local governments at the municipal level. It produced a procurement data visualizer and analyzer called e-prokurimi.org. This platform can raise red-flags on suspicious contracts awarded by a municipality. To develop this product we organized workshops in each municipality and reached out to their respective local tech communities. This gave the opportunity for young tech students to work on data they could relate with as it pertained to their local government, Furthermore; it engaged them in contributing towards data transparency for good governance.
An ongoing project, this time in partnership with UNDP Kosovo and the Municipality of Gjakova, addresses the problem of illegal dumping in an urban area. We reached out to our network of Open Data Advocates and a local high school for volunteer data collectors. They compiled pictures and coordinates of 686 sites of illegal dumping. After creating an online heatmap of the affected areas, we overlaid garbage truck route data on that same map; demonstrating how data can be re-used and combined to provide new forms of insight. The municipality has committed to cleaning up all reported sites of illegal dumping. Data will be updated to provide feedback and encourage continuous use of the illegal dumping site reporting system.
The last project I will mention is one that explored how we could involve the local tech community in combating gender inequality and raising awareness on the issue. There’s a great grassroots organization based in Prishtina called Girls Coding Kosova. As the name implies, it’s a community of software developers who happen to be young women. Young women interested in technology constitute a minority and they face discrimination and prejudice by their primarily male peers. Furthermore, they often lack exposure or interactions with institutions that address issues of gender inequality. We’ve organized a series of workshops in which members of the Girls Coding Kosova community work with gender related data collected by these institutions with which they develop online data visualization tools. These workshops are not limited to technical development but also contribute towards creating networks and foster relationships between women in tech and institutions like UNDP Kosovo and Kosova’s Women Network.
The youth unemployment rate (15-24 years) in Kosovo is at 55%. Despite being less than a year old, Open Data Kosovo has already been successful and creating jobs for a dozen of its volunteers through its digital capacity building for good governance approach. We still have a long way to go but I think we’ve had a pretty good start.