Can Kosovo Be a Civic Tech Role Model for Taiwan?

Can Kosovo Be a Civic Tech Role Model for Taiwan?
Credit: Open Data Kosovo
What you need to know

The countries have many differences, but share a lack of recognition from the UN – and a spirit of solving problems using civic technology.

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By Chen Ting-yen (陳廷彥)

On Feb. 17, 2008, the Assembly of Kosovo read out Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence and unilaterally declared Kosovo to be independent from Serbia.

A decade later, 111 out of 193 United Nations member states, including the United States and 23 European Union members, recognize the Republic of Kosovo. However, due to vehement opposition from Serbia and its ally Russia, which holds veto power on the UN Security Council, Kosovo has not been able to join the UN.

Kosovo’s circumstances make it hard to not associate it with other unrecognized or partially recognized entities – such as Taiwan, which is recognized by only 16 countries and the Holy See as China has suppressed its presence on the international stage.

Taiwan’s quest for international recognition thus has an obvious role model in Kosovo, which functions as an independent state and, in recent years, has normalized relations with Serbia.

Kosovo is ‘young’ in terms of both statehood and polity – over half of its population is under 25. This means its young, technologically adept demographic plays a crucial part in Kosovo’s social development.

Young people can’t find jobs? Let them ‘engineer the nation with technology’

The first lesson Taiwan can learn from Kosovo is this: After independence, domestic issues will not solve themselves. Social and economic problems that are difficult to resolve can act as fissures in the foundations of a young state.

Kosovo is currently facing severe economic challenges. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and its unemployment rate has reached as high as 30%. Studies show that up to 57.7% of young people are unable to find a job. (In an extreme case, some 300 Kosovars went overseas to join ISIS.) According to a 2016 survey, up to half of Kosovars wish to ‘go westward’ and emigrate to countries in Western Europe.

From this backdrop spawned Open Data Kosovo, a civic technology organization which believes that the push for reform must continue after independence for a ‘good country’ to truly be born. “People are expected to follow the new constitution, but they don’t criticize what [this new country] lacks,” said Blerta Thaci, CEO of Open Data Kosovo. “In consequence, changing the status quo is but our own duty.”

She and her colleagues attribute the high domestic unemployment rate to the aftermath of Kosovo’s conflict with Serbia, punctuated by the late 1990s Kosovo War. They say the educational system is in tatters, leaving people unable to acquire the skills required in the modern workplace.

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Credit: Open Data Kosovo

Despite the fact that Kosovo has not been able to join the UN, the Kosovo branch of the UNICEF Innovation Lab initiated a project called TechStitution. It aims to kill two birds with one stone: by helping young people learn software programming and improve their professional abilities, it enables them to disassemble and reconstruct the government’s archaic digital services.

The project, first launched in 2016, has two execution units: Open Data Kosovo and Girls Coding Kosova, an organization that helps develop women’s technological capabilities. It also works closely with the Kosovan government. By partnering with electronic, post, and communications authorities, they first established online application forms for telecom companies. In the following year, they collaborated with Kosovo’s interior ministry and created the app Border Wait, which provides real-time updates of wait times at the country’s twelve departure gates so that people can better plan their journeys.

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Credit: Screenshot
Pristina's 'Open Contracts' is available in three languages.

Its latest achievement is the open procurement platform of Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo. The platform, Open Contracts, allows citizens to monitor information on bids for government projects and their subsequent execution. Aside from a basic contract search function, the platform also graphs the contracts awarded over the last few years, the ten largest buyers of government bidding projects, and the ten largest recent bidding projects. All information dating back to 2010 has been rendered in .csv or .json files for people to download for free – an unprecedented level of government transparency in Kosovo.

After independence, gender equality remains a work in progress

Along with enabling Kosovo’s young tech experts to work on government projects, the efforts of Techstitution have also advanced gender equality – four-fifths of the program’s interns are women, as are a majority of Open Data Kosovo’s employees, including CEO Blerta Thaci.

Kosovars have good reason to care about gender equality: according to Labour Market Sunburst, a project which visualizes Kosovo’s workforce, women account for 50.1% of the working-age population. Among them, however, only about one-fifth possess the ability and inclination to work, primarily due to “family and other personal responsibilities” being imposed on them.

Kosovo’s civic technology community has thus decided to address this post-independence gender inequality. When Thaci worked in a private technology company, she noticed a serious lack of women in workplaces. She thus set up Girls Coding Kosova in 2014, intending to increase the representation of women in tech.

Upon joining Open Data Kosovo, Thaci continued to prioritize gender equality. “Once women begin adding their values to industries,” she says, “the whole ecosystem will drastically change.”

In that spirit, Open Data Kosovo drew up a plan called Tech4Policy, which encourages women to come up with innovative ideas to improve civic tech engagement and create digital solutions for issues that citizens in Kosovo municipalities face everyday. About 250 women participate as of now.

One of the 27 teams devised a platform, E-Komuna, enabling citizens of the city of Drenas to report illegal governmental behavior, speak to officials face-to-face, search for jobs, and receive real-time updates on information provided by the city government. The project is currently in the incubation phase.

Another notable achievement is Walk Freely, a mobile app co-developed between Open Data Kosovo, Girls Coding Kosova, and Kosovo Women’s Network. This app enables users who are sexually harassed to instantaneously, anonymously submit information and presents graphs on harassment incidences in different locations. There are hopes the app can be developed to encompass collaboration with police in future.

Previously, there were only three or four sexual harassment complaints every year in Kosovo, but within two years of the app’s launch, over 500 complaints have been filed. The app is the end-product of a series of workshops with young women from Kosovo who were taught how to program mobile apps. Thaci considers Walk Freely to be Open Data Kosovo’s greatest achievement thus far.

Letting the world see Kosovo with civic technology

Open Data Kosovo’s push for gender equality aligns with similar movements by organizations around the world, but with a large caveat: because Kosovo is not fully recognized as a country, many international organizations focused on gender equality choose to overlook it.

In 2015, BBC produced a digital feature measuring worldwide gender inequality – but it used a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) which excluded information from Kosovo, Taiwan, and other states without widespread international recognition.

Open Data Kosovo had a solution. Using the structure of the BBC feature as a reference, they gathered statistics and produced “How equal are you in Kosovo?” It visualized equality of access to education, employment, and political positions, helping Kosovars not only analyze with their own issues but compare their country’s progress with countries around the world.

Aside from reminding international organizations not to forget Kosovo, Open Data Kosovo voluntarily participates in projects run by international organizations, including Amnesty International’s Decode Darfur and its subsequent Decode the Difference. Through analyzing satellite photos of villages in Darfur, the project determined which areas had been attacked by the Sudanese government during the long-running conflict.

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Credit: EU
Federica Mogherini, the EU's top diplomat, visits the Kosovo Assembly.

Although Kosovo’s Eastern European neighbors – Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Romania among them – have not recognized its sovereignty, Open Data Kosovo still actively collaborates with civic technology organizations in other countries with hopes of expanding its regional diplomatic space. For instance, Kosovo took part in an EU-sponsored project called ActionSEE, which estimated the level of openness in each Eastern European government.

This approach reminds us that a small, disadvantaged country can expand its international profile by promoting equality, prioritizing human rights and democracy, and participating in civic technology efforts which further these causes at home and throughout the world.

Can Taiwan and Kosovo partner in civic tech diplomacy?

Open Data Kosovo has spearheaded many more open information projects, including the central government’s open information platform and a revamped web portal called Open Businesses, which tables legally registered companies in Kosovo. Open Data Kosovo’s projects are 100% open-source and free to use – much like those of g0v, Taiwan’s civic tech community.

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Credit: Kosovo Next 10
A poster for this year's Kosovo Next 10.

Since the two countries share similar international circumstances and tech spirits, is it possible that Taiwan’s g0v and Open Data Kosovo will start collaborating? Thaci is open to the idea: “Seeing the organization (g0v) likewise focused on civic technology and open government adopt different approaches to solving similar problems,” she said, “I believe that a collaboration [with] each other can certainly bring forward creative and unique outcomes.”

Taiwan has a long-standing relationship with Kosovo. In 1999, after the Kosovo War, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) announced US$300 million in aid to Kosovo. In 2008, just two days after Kosovo declared independence, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to recognize the Republic of Kosovo. (The recognition is not mutual: Kosovo has not established diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or China, which itself does not recognize Kosovo.)

Notably, a young Taiwanese woman named Kuo Chia-yo (郭家佑) traveled to Kosovo and helped establish Domain for Kosovo, assisting in obtaining an international exclusive domain name (.ks) and holding the Kosovo NEXT 10 exhibition.

The Taiwan-Kosovo friendship, shared by two countries rejected by the United Nations, has already produced mutually beneficial results. A continuation of their engagement in civic tech diplomacy will only produce further positive results.

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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from g0v.news, a news platform covering the latest trends in civic tech from Taiwan, Asia, and around the world. The original article is available here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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