Blog post

The open data controversy

Published on
September 20, 2017

Information access has given rise to both benefits and problems. Would open data governance solve some of these issues, for example, in a country such as Indonesia?

Access to information is one of the largest challenges of our current society. The digital age has made information sharing quick and easy; a development that has brought us both profit and problems. There are increases in court cases related to privacy, national security and protection of intellectual property, all of which are based on the issue of access to information. But meanwhile, we also demand other societies to move towards open access to information, because we believe it brings with it transparency, efficiency and equity. It is for these reasons that governments across the globe develop agreements such as the open government partnership (OGP), which would allow governments to promote transparency and fight corruption, amongst others, by developing information sharing systems.
The government of Indonesia, under the OGP, has endorsed the Open Governance Declaration in 2011. Indonesia is a G20 country with more than 250 million inhabitants and it is the world’s largest palm oil producer. However, they have no idea where that palm oil is produced. Much of the land information in Indonesia is either lacking or not shared. It means that we have no clue where the palm oil we daily use is produced exactly (no transparency); that different land use concessions are granted for the same areas of land  because government departments do not share land information (no efficiency); and that some communities are not granted their right to community land because they do not have access to the right information (no empowerment of minorities or local communities).  For someone who grew up in Europe where access to this kind information is taken for granted and where geography was a mandatory course for 12 years, this is almost impossible to grasp. How can a G20 country, the largest exporter of palm oil, with the fourth lartest population on earth, have no basic land information sharing system? In other words, how can they not know where everything is?
But then again, will open data governance solve these issues? We assume that open data will automatically lead to good governance. But can that be true for a country that is so decentralised and is known for its corruption. Who will be responsible for managing the data and with who will it be shared with? Is the ministry of defense in Indonesia right in being reluctant because of its implications for national security? Or will too much data sharing result in a decrease in international diplomatic power, as the ministry of foreign affairs claims? These are issues that even our Western world struggles with in the light of information sharing. Additionally, we do not know what the impact will be of absolute open access to land information – and hence to palm oil production – on Indonesia’s economy and population. Is Indonesia well prepared for that? So, are we demanding open information sharing because we believe it is better for the country or because we want to know where and how products are produced for our own conscience? – by Eline Schothorst

MSc Student Eline van Schothorst is currently in Indonesia, studying informational challenges in sustainable governance of the palm oil value chain. Eline is carrying out her MSc thesis research under supervision of prof.dr. Esther Turnhout who is affiliated with the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy group (FNP) and member of the research team of the Wageningen University research program Next Generation Governance Arrangements for Sustainable Global Value Chains.

Re:actions 2

  • Margreet Brinxma

    Thank You Eline,

    Just stumbled across your blog and well impressed with how you bring it back to the core issue. Why and for whom and how are we demanding such a data infrastructure.

    Very interesting read!

  • Cathrien de Pater

    Thank you for your blog! Opening up data for land use and land rights is important but solves only part of the problem. One of my first jobs was compiling a forest district map in the Philippines from all the sources available. The result was an embarrassing overlap of land uses, ownerships, settlements and numerous 'irregularities' which at least explained why years of forest restoration and tree planting ended up nowhere.... and that was before the satellite era. Today the physical features are there for everyone to see from space (e.g. at That's helpful, and so are open source data on ownership etc, as long as their reliability can be checked. However, it is through social and political dialogue that tensions on access and use of the land have to be solved.