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Taking the next steps with data portals in the Middle East

Middle east and data portals

Even more than in other areas data portals have a key role to play in delivering innovation, transparency and new services to citizens, businesses and governments across the Middle East. Based on best practice examples, we explain where should organizations focus when it comes to transforming their portals.

VP of Marketing , Opendatasoft
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Countries across the Middle East have ambitious plans for the future. They want to grow, develop and diversify their economies, strengthen their profile on the global stage, build smart cities, increase investment and boost tourism, all while deepening engagement with citizens and meeting their decarbonization and sustainable development goals (SDGs). Demonstrating this, in December 2023 Dubai hosted the COP28 conference, while the City of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia will be organizing the World Expo 2030.

They understand that data is central to this transformation. It delivers transparency, collaboration and innovation, while powering smart cities, communities and countries. Based on this, many public sector organizations have already launched data portals to enable easier data sharing, while private sector companies are increasingly embracing internal data portals to increase efficiency and productivity. Leading organizations are now extending their portals to make them more interactive, comprehensive, visual and engaging for all audiences, as we’ll explain in this blog.

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Data portals provide a one-stop shop for information, bringing together data from across organizations and countries. They provide employees, policymakers, citizens, businesses and other stakeholders with the information they need to work more effectively, make more informed decisions and access government and other services. To deliver real value data portals have to offer a seamless experience to all types of users, helping them rapidly discover the data they need, in the right format, without requiring specialist training or skills.

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Based on our experiences working with customers across the region, we can see that leading organizations are transforming their portals, based on six key themes:

Increasing engagement with wider range of users

As the number of data assets they provide has grown, data portals need to engage with a wider range of audiences. They have to offer a seamless, tailored experience to all of these user types, with intuitive interfaces available in English and Arabic, and advanced search that makes data discovery rapid and simple. Essentially, the experience has to be as straightforward as accessing any e-commerce site. There has to be a focus on compelling visualizations and data stories to share data with key audiences in an engaging way, backed up by APIs to automate data sharing for expert audiences.

For example, Saudi Arabian economics think tank the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) has moved from solely providing data to energy researchers on its portal to embrace less-specialist audiences, such as policymakers, ministers and decision-makers. To enable this it has created maps and visualizations around key data, helping researchers and policymakers to make better-informed decisions, such as around decarbonization of electricity production.

 

 

Data assets have to be tailored to the needs of specific audiences, and delivered in ways that make them easily understandable and usable. Demonstrating this approach, the Qatar Open Data Portal publishes a weekly newsletter of real estate transactions in the country, available by an interactive map and filterable by municipality.

 

Increasing the variety and depth of available data

To drive usage, portals need to add a greater range of datasets to provide users with access to all the information they need, whether they are a citizen, visitor, business or employee. Surveying users and giving them the chance to submit requests for new datasets helps ensure that portals grow to meet user needs. For example, KAPSARC’s portal has grown from having 40 datasets at launch to over 1,270 now, with the organization committed to adding 100 datasets per year going forward.

Often, data needs to come from multiple government entities, requiring close collaboration between public bodies. For example, Bahrain’s national data portal contains information from 34 government entities, including the Information & eGovernment Authority (iGA), Health, Finance and National Economy and Education ministries, Central Bank of Bahrain (CBB) and others. Data is organized by theme to make finding relevant information easier, with maps and visualizations to ensure that data is accessible and understandable.

 

Creating a data culture within the organization

Sharing data internally and between public bodies helps create data-centric cultures which deliver improved, better-informed internal and external decision making and increased efficiency. What is vital is that people are educated and encouraged to use data in their working and daily lives, which requires the growth of data cultures that break down any barriers to sharing and reusing data.

For example, as part of its data sharing portal initiative, the Department of Digital Ajman created an in-depth program to train data ambassadors from nine government departments. These ambassadors are responsible for providing quality, regularly-updated data from their department. However, they also have a wider role in communicating the overall vision of becoming data-driven and creating a data culture across the entire government.

Organizations and individuals across Ajman are using data from the portal to improve decision-making, in both their working and private lives. For example, people can easily access amenities and locate government departments and services, while bodies such as the Ajman Chamber use the portal to provide consultancy for investors. For visitors, the Department of Digital Ajman worked with the Ajman Tourist Department to create a complete data story, detailing attractions and accommodation across the emirate.

 

Extending portals to cover development goals/sustainability plans

Meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals is a key objective for governments across the region. They want to demonstrate progress in a transparent, open way, as well as increasing engagement and participation from citizens and businesses.

Ajman’s portal therefore includes a focus on the circular economy. Its Sustainable Ajman initiative provides a hub for sustainability, sharing data about all types and volumes of waste produced across the emirate. Delivered through a combination of raw data, data stories, interactive maps and dashboards, it has been created by a collaboration between the Municipality & Planning Department and Digital Ajman. It provides citizens with information on how the emirate is handling sustainability, encouraging them to recycle more while highlighting the facilities that have been put in place to make Ajman more sustainable.

 

Sharing best practice

 

Organizations across the Middle East understand that collaboration enables them to share best practice around data portals. It helps to spark new ideas, educate audiences and drive data sharing forward across the region and beyond. Many teams have taken part in national and international hackathons, while the Department of Digital Ajman has run its own events with university and school students.

Showcasing success is also vital. The Bahrain Open Data Portal won Best Open Data Initiative at the 5th GCC Digital Government Awards, which also recognized the impact of the Ajman data portal. Regular meetings between peers help to increase cooperation and empower new collaborations. For example, the Bahrain iGA has met with the Slovak government and Digital Government Authority of Saudi Arabia to discuss the importance of data sharing.

 

Embracing new technology such as AI

As with all areas of technology, data portals can benefit from the application of artificial intelligence, as well as playing a key part in collecting and sharing reliable, trustworthy data that can be used for AI models.

AI can help to improve the usability of portals, especially around areas such as search.
KAPSARC has beta tested Opendatasoft’s AI-based semantic search, which relies on contextual and natural language search to enable more conversational, question-based interactions that quickly provide users with the right data.

 

 

Ajman has launched its Smart Business Feasibility tool, which uses a combination of open data and Amazon Web Services machine learning to predict if particular economic activities (such as a type of business or shop) will be successful in specific locations. This unique project provides recommendations that help target investment, all built on open data and accessible via the Ajman Data portal.

 

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There has been rapid progress across the Middle East in terms of extending and developing data portals. Innovative new use cases and a wider range of data assets are helping citizens, businesses and employees successfully access and reuse data to improve transparency, decision-making and engagement. As this trend continues, and spreads to the private sector, the region is becoming more data-centric, benefiting everyone and driving forward data democratization.

Involved in data in the Middle East? Come along and meet Opendatasoft at LEAP 2024 in Riyadh, between March 4-7, 2024. We look forward to seeing you there!

 

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