Opening New Doors — The Pioneering Work of Open Data Kosovo

Since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia a decade ago, the young state’s developing institutions have been forced to grapple with a host of tough challenges. Youth unemployment currently stands at 57.7% according to UNDP, and mass emigration is feeding an ongoing crisis. Yet in the face of all these difficulties, some inspiring and hopeful initiatives are being developed to open up Kosovan government and provide fresh opportunities for the country’s tech economy to flourish. There’s no better example of this than the non-profit organisation Open Data Kosovo (ODK), which is seeking to utilise an open data revolution as an engine for economic and social change in Kosovo.

Blerta Thaci has been working with ODK since 2016, and currently serves as the organisation’s Executive Director. Prior to running Open Data Kosovo, Blerta was an Android developer in the private sector, working with tech companies such as Zombie Soup and Appsix Mobile.

While working in the private sector, Blerta became acutely aware of the lack of women in her workplace, and the tech industry more widely. Keen to take action, she was motivated by the idea that more young women needed to be inspired and supported to develop the tech skills they needed to flourish in the sector.

This conviction drove Blerta to found Girls Coding Kosova in February 2014, a project she continues to oversee. Through Girls Coding Kosova, Blerta works to provide employment opportunities for young people in a country with sky-high youth unemployment, while also providing them with transferable skills for the future.

We spoke to Blerta last month to talk about her aspirations for Open Data Kosovo, and to discuss some of the ways that open data might be able to transform Kosovo in the coming months and years.

Hi Blerta! Thanks for chatting with us. First off, I’d be interested to know how you’d define the idea of ‘open data’, and to learn what this means to you?

I have been engaged in Open Data Kosovo — which was founded in 2014 — for almost two years now, so I’m very new to this sort of concept.

And open data in general is still a new concept in Kosovo — ODK was one of the first organisations to bring it to the country, and Georges — our founder — was really the pioneer of open data here. He was working on his masters thesis, and whilst looking for data for his research he came to realise that there really wasn’t a lot of open data available.

Recognising this as a problem — while taking note of the high rate of youth unemployment in Kosovo — he had the idea to open an organisation that could serve as an educational platform, and as a place for people to learn more about the concept of open data. For me personally, it has really good governance, and it’s one of my biggest passions. In this country, we are expected to blindly follow the constitution, and are not allowed to criticise it when there is something missing. Thus it is our duty to change this.

Is it easy to do this work in Kosovo? Can you give us an idea of your state’s relationship towards open data and access to information? Are there whistleblower protections and rules to protect freedom of expression?

Because Kosovo is such a new country, we have a really high number of young people, but the unemployment rate is also really high. And I know for sure that, if we dig even deeper, then there is another, bigger problem — the high women’s unemployment rate. We can see a trend in that from time to time, that whilst a lot more women graduate compared to men, when it comes to employment the percentage is ridiculously low. As in, less than 16% of women are in employment in any given sector. And the number is even smaller for the more technical fields.

Using open data, we’re trying to contribute towards educating and building the capacity of these young people. We know for sure based on our own experiences that most of the reasons why these people lack job opportunities is because they don’t have the right skills. The education system is a mess. This country is new and the way society worked before the conflict 18 years ago, exposed people to an industrial working environment. People tend to think that the situation will be the same as before, so they haven’t been pursuing extracurricular activities in order to better their access to the job market.

What is the wider scene around open data in your country? Are there any groups that do similar work, or who you collaborate with?

The concept is becoming very familiar, and there are other small initiatives by other companies in this field. We work with public institutions as our main partners because in this way we are able to identify the gaps in education — it allows us to follow up on different ideas around open data when we build digital tools for them.

When we started working with public institutions — when open data was first created and introduced — we found that they do actually have data, and that it is not just that they refuse to make information available. They simply lack the digital infrastructure, such as basic websites with basic information, to analyse and share the data in real time. What we did was start to build digital tools, but we realised this was difficult to do because their staff were not trained well enough. We needed to go back to square one by preparing the digital infrastructure and having the data in machine-readable formats, so we could then begin to work with them.

What are the challenges you face in your work? Are these specific to working in Kosovo?

We were working with a public institution that oversees electronic communications in Kosovo, which also provides reports of services to citizens so they know which service provider’s offering the best service. This was what was supposed to happen anyway, but the way they did it is a different story.

When we went there, we wanted to build this platform that compares websites for people to check from time to time — the services offered, pricing comparisons, and so on. What we found is that they had this database which was built in 2003/2004, and it was an old system that they somehow were still managing to use, even though it was broken and had a lot of missing data. So we built a new platform for the institution that would provide a means for electronic communications companies to register their profiles and list their services.

This allowed online companies to to submit a report every three months about their services, as they were obliged to by law. The reports are all digitised, and the database updates itself automatically, so they don’t need to do it manually anymore.

Are there any other success stories you’d like to highlight?

Another great example that we are very proud of is the open data portal which was built for the central government to use. We built the portal and then the Ministry of Public Administration was granted ownership of it. We advocated for open data as much as we could within the timeframe of the project, and afterwards we saw they they are now continuing to pursue this objective by inviting people to bring in more data. We have all the public institutions listed on the platform, and in the future, they’ll need to be trained to engage with and report on open data.

Another example is ‘Open Businesses’. This essentially acts as a business directory for Kosovo. The business registration agency in Kosovo already publishes all of their data on their website, but they way they do it is neither accessible nor user friendly. So we scraped all the data from their website and we created our own! Now we’ve created a far more accessible and user-friendly platform.

Lastly, I would like to share a sexual harassment reporting tool, Walk Freely, which is our biggest achievement, and something that has really had a positive impact on our society. When we created the app, it was only built for data-collection purposes — just to see the situation and engage in advocacy based on that. But it ended up garnering a lot of interest from people, so we invited the Kosovo Police to partner with us. Right now we are in the consultation phase and we have a contract agreement.

We had to make some technical changes, but hopefully later this year the digital tool will be integrated into their services. Essentially, because we are a non-profit organisation we do not have a lot of sustainability, so in order to make ourselves sustainable, we give the ownership of our platform to our partners. We help them from time to time, but in general we try to give total ownership to them. This is how we gain trust from users to use our platform, as they know the institutions behind it.

Are you getting a lot of public support?

The app is 2 years old, and there are now over 500 reports on it. It was very challenging at the beginning because people were skeptical. People didn’t realise that, by reporting sexual harassment they are actually contributing to the platform and giving insights to the platform, so we can highlight all of these instances and put pressure on institutions that are able to enact change.

In the beginning, we partnered with the Kosovo Women’s Network, and they brought a lot of research with them — work they had already done on sexual harassment in Kosovo. They found that only 3–4 sexual harassment cases per year were reported to the police. In Kosovo, this is common. So, we built the platform to advocate for a change in this. You don’t want to go to the police because there are so many procedures to file a report on this. We wanted to optimise the reporting process.

What role have you played in your organisation’s growth? What got you interested in open data in the first place?

At the time I joined ODK, I was already working as a software engineer and I had founded another initiative called Girls Code Kosovo (which is still going and growing). We started working closely with open data because we had similar missions, in that we wanted to contribute to the area of technology. We wanted to create this real experience for people so they would be more prepared for the job market because at universities they tend to learn more theoretical stuff.

I met the founder of ODK in around 2014/2015, and we started some small activities together with the communities that I had already built through Girls Code Kosovo. I started this initiative to give me something to do after work — after my boring time coding in the office I would do community stuff to engage with people. Also, there aren’t many women in the field and I was the only woman in my company that I worked at at the time. I wanted to find out why there aren’t a lot of women in IT. It went from being something I did after work to a full time job. Nowadays, Girls Code Kosovo has joined up with ODK and it shares the same office. I try to focus most of my energy into open data, but we always partner together with Girls Code Kosovo.

Is there an aspect of open data work that gets you particularly excited?

In general I love the nature of open data, which entails working within the realms of governance, policy and law. At the beginning, I wasn’t very interested. As a technical person, when I see a problem, I immediately try to find a solution to it. When I started to learn about open data and how we can combine the power of technology to contribute concretely — even if in small ways — I really love that. ODK gave me so many insights into the government and how the government can be open, accountable, and transparent to its citizens.

What tools have you used for this project?

We make sole use of open source technologies. We use Python, MongoDB and all the latest platforms. We use GitHub to share our source code, and we have also convinced the government to open a GitHub account — that’s one of our achievements. We had a lot of issues when deploying a lot of digital tools on their server when we were handing over to them so we introduced GitHub as an easier way of communication. We as an organisation are advocating that people don’t need to pay millions for licensing when they can use open source technology.

To convince the government to be more open, we made sure to bring examples of governments in other countries that were making moves to be more open through data. But open source was another level. ODK met an ICT team from the Agency of Technology in Kosovo, and we had a platform running on GitHub. They really needed the platform, so we fundraised for it with an international donor and that allowed us to build it. When it came to them implementing it, we then encouraged them to start using GitHub themselves. It was not an easy process, but in the end they agreed — after we’d explained that doing so would not damage the security of the system because we were just uploading the structure and the skeleton. I knew that they were not familiar with it, and that was a big barrier, but I encouraged our team to always use these opportunities to educate people, in order to pursue our goal. It’s okay that it takes a lot of time — we believe we can manage it.

Tell us about your latest project in this domain.

Besides open data, we are also working on ICT for youth employability. We wanted to expand our coverage of training services by opening a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform. We’re focusing mainly on Kosovo and Albania and wanted to build the platform so that young people could be inspired. Most of the online courses available on the internet are not in our native languages. For high schoolers, it is hard to learn new ideas if those ideas are not in their native language. This platform could motivate them to do something. We are combining this into our existing curriculum alongside our open source technology teachings.

What did you learn from carrying out the project?

It’s really nice to have the chance to contribute with technology to a sector in which so many things have not been tackled from a digital angle. In this movement to fight corruption, I think digital solutions are the answer. Digital has taken over every aspect in our lives, and I believe it’s also had a positive impact on our governments.

What does the future look like?

We’re constantly working on this mission and we are very happy to get involved in new opportunities. We think that despite Kosovo’s many issues and different priorities, that with technology, digital solutions and our expertise we can contribute to a better government, and to something that serves Kosovo’s wider citizenry. We’ll pursue even higher goals and see what more we can do. The biggest mission is to help institutions and to build the capacity of young people so that we can all be part of this movement.

Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media is an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal.

Cover image by skp, story edited by Tom Ormson.

The original post can be found on Medium here.

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