Open data is non-personal information collected by governments that anyone can access, use or share. This information enables interested parties such as citizens, businesses and researchers to learn more about what is going on which make crucial improvements to their communities. Open Data has benefits for both the economy and citizens.
The idea of sharing information with the general public has faced a number of challenges, particularly from autocratic governments that have suppressed data likely to challenge official narratives. However, more countries are warming up to the idea of sharing information, and the rules around how this information is shared are being put in place.
The World Wide Web Foundation's Open Data Barometer Global Report shows that there is still a long way to go to put the power of data in the hands of Africa's citizens.
Source: Open Data Barometer
Kenya is ranked highest in Africa for 'True prevalence of open data initiatives', an indication of how well the country is doing when it comes to the collection and publication of data. Similarly, Rwanda and South Africa have laws in place compelling government bodies to share the information they have for the public good. However, Sub-Saharan Africa lies below the global average for readiness to utilize this data and the social impact that the data has.
Source: Open Data Barometer
While it is good to have strong freedom of information and right to information laws, there is a need for relevance and timeliness when it comes to the collection and distribution of the data, otherwise it is useless.
Key data on how governments are spending money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or paywalled in most countries. Information critical to fight corruption and promote fair competition, such as company registers, public sector contracts, and land titles, is even harder to get. In most countries, proactive disclosure of government data is not mandated in law or policy as part of a wider right to information, and privacy protections are weak or uncertain.
Another challenge is 'open washing', where governments merely enact open data policies but do not follow through to full implementation.
Another initiative is the Open Data for Africa platform, set up by the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) to boosting access to quality data necessary for managing and monitoring development results in African countries, including the millennnium development goals.
Open data initiatives aim to foster evidence-based decision-making, public accountability and good governance, which have been elaborated in the worldwide effort to strengthen statistical capacity articulated in the Busan Action Plan for Statistics (BAPS), a plan to provide reliable and accessible statistics in order to improve decision making, document results, and heighten public accountability.
One of the biggest challenges to access is the lack of strong democratic policies and conservative attitudes that are linked to authoritarian governments. However, the value of access to information is becoming increasingly apparent, and governments are gradually making their affairs and dealings more transparent and accountable.
It is however still a challenge to access data or information, as governments are still quite likely to frustrate access to this much needed information. Much of this data that is made public is often not the kind of data is often outdated and hard to verify.
However, as development partners get more involved in the data collection process, the accuracy and ease of access tp data is improving.
For a country that seeks to share Open Data, they need to follow through these commitments:
Budgets: Governments should be in position to execute budgets with transparency and accountability. Government revenues are generally tied to taxes, service fees, transfer payments and grants. They need to account for how this money is spent.
Access to Information: The ability and opportunity to obtain knowledge of classified information. Persons have access to classified information if they are permitted to gain knowledge of the information or if they are in a place where they would be expected to gain such knowledge.
Public Participation: Governments should consult with interested or affected individuals, organizations, and government entities before making a decision. Public participation is two-way communication and collaborative problem solving with the goal of achieving better and more acceptable decisions. Public participation prevents or minimizes disputes by creating a process for resolving issues before they become polarized.
Innovation: Governments need to promote growth through innovation, collecting data in order to drive evidence based reform. The data collected from this will highlight the effectiveness of innovation and allow citizens to engage on how their lives can be made better.
African countries need to make public sector both legally open and technically open. Technical openness means that it is available in a machine-readable standard format, which means it can be retrieved and meaningfully processed by a computer application. Legally open means that the data is explicitly licensed in a way that permits commercial and non-commercial use and re-use without restrictions.
Challenges such as government agencies being unwilling to release official information still remain a huge bottleneck. Many governments are also taken aback when they only make information that praises them available and not equally having information that illustrates their weaknesses made freely available.
Any open data initiative needs the full endorsement from leadership, which is essential to allay any fears and misunderstandings that may emerge. Additionally there is need for investment in support and training for civil society and entrepreneurs to understand and use data effectively.
For governments hoping to adopt open data in policy and in practice, simply making data available to the public isn’t enough to make that data useful. Open data, though straightforward in principle, requires a specific approach based on the agency or organization releasing it, the kind of data being released, and the target audience. Going forward, more needs to be done to make sure this information freely available, and that it is released in a timely manner so that it can achieve the maximum benefit for everyone involved.