In a break from opaque communist past, Moldova bares all

by Crina Boros | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 3 January 2014 03:25 GMT

In a 2009 file photo, a security officer enters the parliament building painted with anti-communists signs in Chisinau. The words on the pillar (C) reads, "Down with communism". REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

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In a move towards transparency, the former Soviet state has been publishing more of its data, and civil society and journalists are now delving into the numbers to see what lurks inside.

Since 2011, Moldova has taken a few steps from its opaque communist past and moved towards greater transparency by opening up its books online. Now with the key to Pandora’s box, civil society and the media are delving in to see what lurks inside.

Moldova kicked off its National Action Plan on Open Government in 2011, and that April, the former Soviet state surprised its neighbours by being the first in the region - and among the first 16 countries in the world - to publish an Open Data Portal, with 186 data sets available and plenty more in the planning.

It was USAID who financed the first version of the portal. The following two versions were backed by the World Bank, and currently includes 722 data sets.

Within the same month, liberal democrat Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who aims to take his country into the European Union, signed a directive and institutionalised the Open Data Programme. The e-Government Centre (EGC) was put in charge to deliver the project. The portal recorded 20,000 downloads of more than 250 data sets in five months - showing that a new era of public scrutiny had indeed begun.

When the Moldovan Finance Ministry released a comprehensive public expenditure database under the World Bank’s BOOST Initiative, civil society quickly combed through the numbers and showed how much the state’s civil servants cost taxpayers by releasing the Budget Stories.

The new and fragile Moldovan civil society’s drive for transparency and improved public services garnered wide support.

The World Bank gave $20 million for the e-government implementation, while World Bank president Robert Zoellick visited Moldova in August 2010, and open data advocate Hans Rosling came a year later. Both met with PM Vlad Filat in the capital Chisinau to discuss the open data partnership.

“The World Bank has agreed to support the Moldovan Government e-transformation project as a complement to the important contributions of international actors such as USAID and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)", which were already piloting e-services, training civil servants and supporting legal reforms, a report said.

What followed was an innovation contest for apps, hackathons and computer-assisted reporting boot camps - whispering a wind of change.

The U.N. organised a two-day workshop last November in Chisinau, where about 25 young journalists, students and NGO workers from across the region took data expeditions and learnt how to map, scrape and manage a data-driven story. Entry was free and UNDP paid for the participants’ flights, visas and hotels.

Tracking finance is the latest skill that Moldovan journalists have added to their investigative toolkit. A follow-up took place on December 16 and 17, organised by geopolitical magazine Transitions Online (TOL) and MediaPoint, Moldova’s first new media organisation.

Participants learned from leading journalists from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project how to follow the money, while Thomson Reuters Foundation trained them to mine for stories using Excel.

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, whose main export partner is Russia, according to Index Mundi.

Accountability in the former Soviet country has a long way to go, but NGOs are already pressing authorities for improved data sets.

The first step towards data-driven investigations in Moldova is being taken now and with $15 million in World Bank funding left to spend for electronic transparency, it could become a revolutionary road.

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