The Open Data Revolution in West Africa — What It Takes To Launch A Nationwide Open Data Initiative
With the advent of the “Africa rising” era, it is welcoming to see that a digital revolution is finally sweeping across the continent in smaller, fragile West African markets such as Liberia. An increasing number of governments are warming up to the vast potential that e-governance services have in not only improving their own performance, but also in enabling them to have a two-way conversation with their citizens, thereby strengthening the entire democratic system. Along with the increased adoption of digital tools for delivering public services, there is also the burgeoning Open Data movement that is collaborating with governments to become more open and transparent in the delivery of services, while also digitizing the vast troves of information datasets which are, by law, to be made easily accessible to the public. If implemented properly, a well executed Open Data Initiative can create a participatory and inclusive environment for all stakeholders to collaborate with the government in identifying the services which citizens urgently require, and understand how best to mitigate the unique challenges that the government faces in the delivery of these services.
However, it would be naive to paint the state of the digital revolution across all African countries with a single brush. Different regions face their own unique set of challenges that need to be understood and addressed in their local context to ensure that a digital solution is applicable. From the post conflict, fragile West Africa zone where our team is headquartered, the Research and Development(R&D) department at iDT Labs has been trying to understand the pain points around institutional capacity of government agencies, record management systems and data collection processes that need to be addressed if we are to encourage the digital revolution in our part of the world. For example, in Sierra Leone, we host Code for Sierra Leone, a chapter of Code for Africa. Together with the World Bank, Code for Sierra Leone launched an Open Gov Fellowship to help the Government of Sierra Leone adopt tools to become more interactive with its citizens.
At iDT Labs, we have recently embarked on carrying out the Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) for the Government of Liberia (GoL), under the auspices of the World Bank. ODRA is a methodological tool developed by the World Bank that is used to conduct an action-oriented assessment of the readiness of a government or individual agency to evaluate, design and implement an open data initiative. As part of the assessment, we have been interviewing a range of different stakeholders at GoL, along with representatives from the civil society, media, and the private sector to understand the unique challenges that Liberia faces in launching a nationwide open data initiative. We aim to compile our findings and to recommend an action plan that GoL can undertake to launch an open data initiative that addresses some of the country’s most urgent needs.
Although it might seem that there are other pressing issues that the governments of most West African countries face, such as poverty, unemployment and malnutrition, open data can bring far reaching and substantial benefits.
Some of the major long term benefits that we believe are a by-product of any successfully implemented open data initiative are as follows:
- Opening the doors for long term development projects. By not only improving the data collection processes across the major economy-driving sectors, but also by making this information easily accessible to the public, the government makes it easy for both development agencies as well as the private sector to make data driven investment decisions on projects that have the potential to create long lasting economic impact
- Capacity building of government agencies and departments. A major challenge that post-conflict countries face in the adoption of digital services is the capacity of essential government ministries to properly take advantage of technology. Due to a combination of both a weak education system as well as a lack of exposure to technology, most government employees are uncomfortable with adopting technology in their every day work. A nationwide open data initiative can provide the necessary impetus to enhance the technological capacity of government agencies and departments
- Strengthening of democratic institutions. The key element for any strong and vibrant democracy is the free-flow of accurate information from the government to its citizens. Keeping in mind the information asymmetries that are inherently present in post conflict countries due to weak institutions, it is vital that the democratic process is strengthened by making it easier for the public to get hold of information regarding the various activities of the government which, by law, are to be made publicly available. An open data initiative would help in this regard, since the program would encourage proactive disclosure of public information by the government, thereby enhancing the people’s trust in the activities of their elected representatives.
- Allowing the government to effectively communicate with its citizenry.An inherent assumption that a lot of people make about the performance of governments in post conflict zones is that they do not have the people’s best intentions at heart. However, based on our experience of working with various government agencies and departments in Sierra Leone and now in Liberia, we do not agree with this black-and-white characterization of public agencies. Although it is true that quite often, the performance of governments in these regions is severely lacking, it is important to appreciate the scope of the issues that exist on the ground, which would severely challenge the capacity of any government. We strongly believe that a properly implemented open data initiative would help in providing a more accurate picture of the ground reality to all stakeholders and to the extent to which their representatives have been tackling the issues.
However, it is essential that if an Open Data initiative is to be made sustainable and not just limited to another short term development slogan, the current modus operandi of how these initiatives are administered needs to be revised. The following are some of the changes that we feel need to be made in how open data initiatives are both championed as well as executed in post conflict countries such as Liberia:
- Revise the base assumptions that are made in evaluating the feasibility of an open data initiative. The current literature and assessment tools that are used for evaluating the capacity of various agencies are not properly attuned with the on-ground realities that exist in post conflict countries. With current data management processes being virtually non-existent coupled with very low tech skills of the end users, it is important to appreciate the low hanging fruit, especially the simplest, most “non-tech” solutions that can be implemented for addressing some of the challenges. Case in point: smartphone usage might be raging across the world and even in some East African countries, but in the context of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the majority of end users still use feature phones, quite often only for making and receiving calls. Therefore, any tech initiative should take into account these basic channels for delivering services to the end users.
- Incentivize the local stakeholders to buy-into the initiative. Quite often, a well intended development initiative fails to take off since it does not have the necessary support from the major stakeholders and end users. With the open data movement, care should be taken to ensure that it is not seen as an initiative that does not have sufficient evangelists from the on-ground implementers. Donor fatigue is a major reason as to why a number of heavily backed initiatives have failed to take root in West Africa, and it is our hope that the open data movement does not follow this tried-and-tested trajectory.
- Rephrase the conversation around “accountability” and open data to make it more inclusive. A critical consideration to make in running an open data initiative is that it would often require working in tandem with institutions and departments who might not be too enthusiastic on the added public scrutiny that the initiative would bring on them. It is also important to understand that these same institutions also hold the power to substantially slow down the implementation of the initiative. In order to mitigate this problem, care needs to be taken in ensuring that the open data initiative is not coming across as an accountability ‘witch hunt’ against specific individuals, but rather, is an exercise being undertaken to improve the efficiency of the entire government machinery.
- Disseminate awareness on what Open Data really encapsulates. There is a widespread misunderstanding that an open data initiative would entail all information collected by government agencies to be disclosed to the general public. Not only is this idea wrong, but it also endangers support to the initiative from other stakeholders who often balk at this seemingly little regard for privacy or protection of critical information. Therefore, it is important to properly define what open data really means, and that it only entails the proper documentation, digitization and dissemination of information which by law is to be disclosed and made publicly available.
We strongly believe that, if adopted to the localized context of post conflict countries, an Open Data Initiative can go a long way in ushering these countries into the digital age. We are excited about the potential that this movement has for our part of the world, and are exploring ways in which we can work with governments in building e-services for their citizens. We are currently in the final stages of drafting the ODRA Report. Watch this space to learn more about our ultimate findings and the takeaways that other implementors in this space can adapt.