During a late 2017 trip to Kyiv, as I ran my familiar morning route past Saint Sophia’s Cathedral towards the Dnipro River, I realised that I had fallen in love with Kyiv. As an increasingly regular visitor, I love this city of contrasts, with its grand juxtaposition of Soviet era buildings, modern glassy structures, and the grandeur of an imperial past. And as a policy adviser and digital specialist, I am excited by its potential. Ukraine is a country ready for reform. Much is already underway, and there is lots more to come.
Ukraine is making especially rapid progress in the use it makes of data, jumping from 62 to 44 in the Open Data Barometer rankings last year. Data is a fantastic resource. Just as human enterprise combined with natural resources drove the industrial revolution, human enterprise is combining with data to drive the digital revolution. Ukraine has enormous potential to be a centre of data-enabled businesses. It has one of the strongest developer bases in the world, especially in cyber security. Ukrainian businesses should be among the world’s leaders in helping turn data into the insights and tools that help people make better decisions.
Some major challenges stand in the way. First, access to capital can be hard for Ukrainian businesses, especially as banks recapitalise. Although the National Bank of Ukraine has made huge strides in reforming the banking sector, this is only just starting to take effect. Small businesses can find it hard to get loans. This is part of the reason why Ukraine is still only ranked 85th on the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Rankings. The need for government to make progress on these measures is one of the reasons why the Transparency and Accountability in Public Administration and Services (TAPAS) project, funded by USAID and UK Aid, is so important. It increases transparency in government procurement through Prozorro. It provides support for Ukraine’s open data programme and it helps government to build the kinds of personalised and efficient services that citizens expect from the public sector.
I’ve already seen great examples of the kinds of ideas the TAPAS programme is inspiring in Ukraine through the entries to the Open Data Challenge. Fines UA, for example, helps Ukrainians to pay traffic fines, reducing their administrative burden. In doing this, it has collected a huge amount of very valuable data about where traffic accidents take place. To design safer driving routes, Fines UA will open their database to help create tools that drivers can use. Other ideas are based on encouraging government transparency to reduce the risk of corruption, or the appearance of corruption. For example, the second-placed company, Court On Your Palm, places court decisions at your fingertips through an API and smart phone app. The winning idea, Open Coal Market, will bring transparency to the official markets for selling coal by entering all transactions into the blockchain. This will create a highly promising market for new entrants and also places Ukraine at the forefront of global technological developments.
What is the wider significance of this? Society is coming to a crossroads. Fuelled by Silicon Valley’s techno-futurists, people’s lives are becoming digitised. Everything is turning into data as companies profile individuals ostensibly to personalise the services offered to them. But there is a serious risk here of restricting data to walled gardens, only accessible to American corporations supported by the US state. We are facing a choice in Ukraine and abroad: accept this reality or do something about it. As a society, we might decide that we want to build a collaborative digital ecosystem in which data is shared for the common good, supports national services, and where people’s privacy is respected to create a data infrastructure grounded in social democracy. Ukrainian businesses have a crucial role in this. Companies do not just need to live within the rules of society, but can help shape these norms too. If we are to move towards a social settlement that sees data infrastructure as a common platform for innovation and creating social value, then there are three ways in which business can help. Firstly, businesses can open up their data and contribute to the shared data commons. Secondly, they can treat their customers’ data responsibly by respecting their personal privacy, only collecting data that is needed for an organisation to run more efficiently and generate a better service for the customer. Thirdly, by partnering with smaller businesses, Ukrainian companies can help the country on the path towards a vibrant startup culture. The biggest winner in this future is the Ukrainian citizen. Through public services enhanced by private sector innovation, they will be able to run their lives more effectively, efficiently and enjoyably. Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, will be able to use Ukrainian open data as a raw material to solve new problems and create new jobs.
As I said at the start of this article, I love Kyiv. I love the people here and the sense of collective endeavour. There is a true sense that everyone is pulling together towards a strong, independent and resilient Ukraine. I can think of no other country in the world that can house more than a million dispossessed people in the way that Ukraine has done. If collaboration and a sense of common purpose are innate in this country, these are just the same values at work as in the open data movement. Open data requires people to do things differently and occasionally accept a small sacrifice for the greater good. This comes naturally to Ukrainians. It is here in Ukraine, more than anywhere else, that the open data revolution can take root, transforming business and society through innovation, shared knowledge and collective action.