Hacking to help: What Estonia’s Koroonakaart has to teach us about Open Government

A result of the Estonian “Hack the Crisis” hackathon, Koroonakaart quickly became the go-to website for citizens and authorities to access vital daily statistics.

However, conflicts between its founders and the government resulted in a shift to a government-run statistics dashboard, proving that Open Government initiatives can only be as sustainable as the partnerships behind them.

Useless -- that’s how many people felt in March 2020 as they sat at home and watched the health system endure a bitter battle to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Not satisfied to sit idly by, short but intense coding events known as “hackathons” swiftly emerged as a manner in which tech-minded citizens could apply their time and skills to solve pandemic-related problems. Just six hours after the Estonian lockdown began, the hackathon organisation Garage 48 hosted the event “Hack the Crisis”, which involved 1100 “citizen tech hackers” from over 20 countries and 14 time zones.

This initiative aligns with a larger trend known as Open Government. Though there is no single definition of the term, it typically involves approaches which use government as a platform, make data available in an open format and work collaboratively with the civic tech community. In this manner, technology is used to increase transparency and strengthen citizen engagement throughout all levels of government. Beginning with Barack Obama’s 2009 Open Government Directive and the 2011 founding of the multilateral Open Government Partnership, Open Government initiatives have gained even more traction during the current pandemic. 

According to the Open Knowledge Foundation, Open Government data gives the opportunity for citizens to engage and participate beyond elections. It has the potential to drive innovation within public institutions, as it allows platforms to be co-created with citizens. Publicly available government data in fields as diverse as finance and meteorology could also be of use in solving commercial problems.

There are, of course, costs associated with the maintenance and publishing required to open up governmental data. National security and confidentiality must be protected, as even blind data may be compromised through the use of cleverly combined data sets (one researcher infamously managed to reveal celebrities’ tipping habits by cross-referencing paparazzi photos with open data). Moreover, without formalised relationships in place, administrations must accept the risk that those who maintain open data platforms for free can withdraw their support at any time -- a fact which became abundantly clear as a result of one of Hack the Crisis’ initiatives.

Keegan McBride, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Digital Governance and former Chief Technical Consultant of the Estonian Open Government Data Portal, left Hack the Crisis as the leader and developer of Koroonakaart, a website which provided Estonian coronavirus statistics to the general public. Operating at a time before there was open data available to citizens, McBride’s team built the platform by parsing press releases and crowdsourcing for data. Koroonakaart proved to be such a widely accessed service that eventually the health board itself was providing McBride personally with Excel spreadsheets of vital data.

Over time, Koroonakaart’s data became so well-known and reliable that even the health board and largest news outlets in Estonia directed citizens to the platform for accurate information. Keegan McBride believes it was the first product combining open data and citizen hacker efforts to gain such widespread support and integration into official networks. However, widespread appreciation for the platform did not lead to a sustainable government partnership. Koroonakaart was a completely volunteer-run platform and the Estonian government did not provide any funding or active support.

After realizing that the health board had released misleading figures in late March, Kooronakaart paused its service to safeguard the public against the spread of incomplete information. While the incident was quickly resolved and the site went back up a few days later, the Estonian government’s trust was shaken, and it began building its own information dashboard to mimic Kooronakaart without reliance on volunteers. Tension resumed again later in October, this time over the governing party’s position on LGBTQ+ rights, and Koroonakaart’s entire developer team stepped down in protest. Luckily for those who still relied on the platform, the code was open sourced and the Open Knowledge Foundation has managed the platform ever since. Keegan McBride’s statement reads as follows: 

“This portal was originally built to support the government in providing clear and accurate information to the Estonian people. However, as project manager, a foreigner, and supporter of LGBTQ rights, I can no longer keep this site up and running in support of a government that does not uphold the Estonian constitution or help to create a more tolerant and accepting society.”

As we can see through Keegan McBride’s experience, real progress in Open Government requires governments to take the excitement of hackathons one step further by supporting the sustainable integration and formalisation of their resulting projects into the public sector. Koroonakart’s story is an example of how both sides of the partnership – namely, volunteer citizens and the governments they code for – can become frustrated by the maintenance and relationships required for effective cooperation. In this case, that frustration unfortunately stopped short the true potential of using open data for sustainable innovation and citizen involvement.

How can citizen-led initiatives such as Hack the Crisis be properly supported to have a more enduring impact in the future? Even Estonia, with its famed e-state, has not landed upon a clear solution. In any case, it is clear the movement to Open Government is already reaching complex institutions that may not have previously published open data or been involved in citizen initiatives. Though hackathons may only require a few days to produce innovative ideas and prototypes, pushing institutional systems towards transparency and citizen engagement will require slow and steady process. 

Image: CC Markus Spiske, source: Unsplash