By GABEY GOHbytz@thestar.com.my
PETALING JAYA: Before information can be turned into knowledge, the data must first be accessible and understandable. Therein lies the mission of Sinar Project, a non-profit, non-partisan project begun in mid-2011 by three volunteers who were inspired by the Open Government Initiative in the United States.
The initiative seeks to establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration, based on the idea that an informed citizen is the basis of any democratic society.
Khairil Yusof, 35, Lian Yuen-Chi, 28, and Ng Swee Meng, 28, were already working with data in their respective day jobs and decided to apply their skills in "data scraping" for a different purpose, i.e. to help the Malaysian Government.
Data scraping is a technique in which a computer program extracts data from human-readable output that comes from another program.
"We wanted to bring Open Initiative to Malaysia and improve government transparency, governance and citizen involvement," said Khairil, who works at Inigo Consulting.
Lian is with OnApp, a cloud-software developer, while Ng is a freelance computer programmer.
The Sinar Project started off with three key projects - each aligned to a founder's personal interest.
Bill Watcher is an application that follows the status of legislation in Parliament and state assemblies.
"The uproar over the proposed Computing Professionals Bill highlighted the need to have a way for the public to easily access all the information on such proposals, and to enable them to provide their feedback quickly," Khairil said.
Another project is Kratos, which tracks the activities of Members of Parliament, state assemblymen and municipal council members, listing what policies they stand for and who they are connected to.
"This lets citizens be better informed about who their government representatives are and helps them make better decisions on who they vote for or why these representatives make certain decisions," he said.
Kratos is a collaboration with youth education and empowerment group, UndiMalaysia, which provides additional information.
The third project is Corruption Tracker. "This one sounds a bit controversial, But what I find is that a lot of the issues stem from people's emotions, rather than facts.
"There is just not enough information on such issues, and some people are confusing mismanagement with corruption," Khairil said.
Also, he said, there is currently no system to track whether or not cases involving corruption are resolved, or that better checks and balances are being put in to prevent such criminal activities.
Keep it open
All the information presented on the Sinar Project site is pulled from government websites and news reports.
In keeping with the open-source movement, all the tools and data systems are free and usable by others without restrictions.
"Some of the programs we use are Plone, Ruby on Rails and Pyramid. These are essentially the basic tools that make up any web developer's tool kit," Khairil said.
Thanks to Sinar Project's open-source roots, a software developer has created an Android app version of Bill Watcher that allows a user to view the latest legislative proposals and to download specific ones to a smartphone.
"This is why we took the open-source route," Khairil said.
But the site does have disclaimers, advising visitors to not jump to conclusions and to verify all the information for themselves. Everything is open for review - the data, methodology, and code.
"Putting information out in the open keeps everyone informed, but people can interpret things in different ways, so you have to watch for that," he said.
Khairil is currently working on Sinar Project's next endeavour - re-organising the data found in the Construction Industry Development Board database.
"There's a lot of information there, which is mandated by law and provides a wealth of information many would find useful, such as for economic forecasts or to gauge the health of the construction industry," he said.
Khairil will be speaking at TEDxKL on July 14 and will be sharing more about the Sinar Project and the open governance movement. "And, if you want to know who the construction king of Malaysia is, come to the talk," he said.
TEDxKL will be held at the Temple of Fine Arts, Kuala Lumpur, from 12.30pm to 7.30pm. The admission fee is RM100 a person if you register online, and RM130 for walk-ins.
For more information, go to www.tedxkl.com.