Monthly Archives: February 2014

The definition of ‘Open Data’ in Uganda’s and Kenya’s Contexts

By Bernard Sabiti

Open what?” That was a response from a government official when asked what open data means to his institution. This was during the study DRT and Development Initiatives have been carrying out to determine the Impact of Open data on resource allocation for poverty eradication in uganda and Kenya.

He wasn’t the only one. During the course of our study, a number of respondents drew a blank whenever we asked this question. Most were hearing the term for the very first time, indicating how new the concept is.

Upon unpacking the term “open data” however, a number of respondents alluded with recognition to their involvement in activities related to open data. Some of these included “open” budgets, spending and general public administration. They were right. Uganda’s Budget process is one of the most transparent in the world according to the international Budget Partnership’s 2012 Open budget survey. Kenya wasn’t far behind in the East African region. Uganda’s Ministry of Finance buys voluminous newspaper space to publish annual budget allocations for sectors and local governments every three months and the budget process is a highly participatory, bottom up endeavor that starts from the village level. Isn’t that “open Data?,” they would ask us.

This brings in the issue of context, which was discussed in detail at the Cape Town Meeting, and which I have blogged about before under the titles here and here. Open data means different things in different settings. In Uganda it means making data and information public irrespective of the means, format or timing .This has implications on adoption, application, and documentation of impact of open data initiatives.

In Kenya where a web portal has been in existence since 2009, few outside the ‘cocoon’/the mini-industry had ever heard of the term either. In fact even some people in government circles were not aware of the famous Kenya Open Data Initiative, launched by the country’s president with fanfare in 2011 and has for a time been a much talked about example for the rest of Africa.

It was only the initiated, the CSO working on ICTs, or a few technocrats in the relevant ministries, like ministry of ICT in Uganda and Ministry of communications in Kenya, who appeared conversant with the term.

The few impact stories we heard in course of our study might therefore have partly been a result of misunderstanding of the definition. The experience in our case study shows that the Open Definition and the principles it has espoused for true application of Open Data has yet to apply here.

 

Embrace Open Data for Development

By Bernard Sabiti

If one wanted information from a certain ministry in Uganda, the process would involve paying a physical visit to the ministry offices and asking a head of department for certain information. He or she would tell you to write to the Permanent Secretary (PS) who is the accounting officer and also the ‘custodian of all information’ in the ministry.

You will then go and write a letter addressed to the PS, which will arrive in the “registry”, an office which exists at almost all government ministries and agencies and whose role is to handle correspondence. (If the ministry is housed in a multi storey building, as is the case for most of them, the registry is at the ground floor in most cases).
The letter will spend perhaps a month or two (waiting for other mail perhaps) before it can begin its maiden voyage upstairs to the PS’ office, which is perhaps at the 10th floor.
That journey may take another month, as support and clerical staff figure out which relevant office it would otherwise have been addressed to. If the person seeking information is lucky, the letter will finally reach the attention of someone in the PS’ office, where a response will then be prepared. This may take another month!
Getting information from civil society organisations is not any easier either. If it is an international NGO, they will tell you that you need to ask for the information from the headquarters of the organisation, which will then authorise this country office to release the information to you. Similarly, if you walked into an NGO office upcountry and you request for certain information, say a report, you will be referred to that NGO’s Kampala office. All this wastes time and money.
Yet this entire problem could be avoided if all the stakeholders involved embraced open data, a new phenomenon that is increasingly becoming the new normal in development. Open data, or open development, as some are calling it, in a more comprehensive sense, is where organisations are using Information technologies to provide and share information using simple computer applications.
Actually, there is no specific definition for Open Development, other than the fact that the idea represents a new vision about development, how it comes about and the role that different stakeholders can play. It is about people having the information and resources that they need to hold duty-bearers to account and to make well-informed decisions to improve their lives.
Open data enhances transparency and accountability about resources that are available to be invested in development, how those resources are invested and what results they achieve. But besides juts resource information, other data on several aspects of human development, like crime reports, weather, roads availability, traffic, examinations, health, etc can be shared as well
For example, Kenya Open Data initiative, a government led platform for providing information, dumps various troves of information on district/county poverty status, school performances, budgets, etc on a website and these data are just a click away!
Luckily, even in Uganda, the Open data idea is not entirely without precedence. UNICEF had a wonderful tool known as Devtrac, where information on health centres, water (like boreholes) and schools upcountry can be got an interactive website
Most government ministries and agencies also have websites, only that these are rarely updated and have only very little information. Ministries like finance which does better also upload heavy documents, which are not user friendly.
Fortunately, the Government realised the need for making the most use of ICTs by establishing the Ministry of ICT and the National IT authority, the ICTs regulatory body. They have already launched the e-governance master plan, which is a grand step in the right direction.
One of the new ministers, Frank Tumwebaze, whose docket is the Presidency, in an interview with the New Vision reportedly said one of his immediate plans is to “link the presidency to ordinary citizens”. Using ICTs by embracing Open Data would be a good way to start.
The writer is a Governance analyst at Development Research and Training (DRT

The Uganda Open Development and Open Data Process: Is the tide about to change?

Charles Lwanga – Ntale

On 11th and 12th September 2012 an interesting and highly interactive multi-stakeholder meeting on open development and open data took place in Kampala, Uganda. A cross-section of representatives from government, civil society, private sector, development partners and academia came together to share and learn from one another, map out a long term strategic focus, and explore collaborative opportunities in promoting development effectiveness through improved transparency, accountability and openness. The meeting was billed as the first CSO-led effort to bring together a wide array of institutions, sectors and individuals with interest in advancing openness in sharing, accessing and using information on development, particularly on the flow of financial and other resources.

You may be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another fad, especially since the concept and approach have gained the respect and interest of a wide body of global, regional and local players, which sometimes does not bode so well with either doubting Thomases or those who prefer “business as usual” in Africa’s development pursuits. However, to know that there is a sea change in what is happening on the East African governance landscape you only need to go back to just over a year ago – to Kenya. Here, on July 8 2011, President Mwai Kibaki launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI), making Kenya the first developing country to have an open government data portal, the first in sub-Saharan Africa and second on the African continent after Morocco. KODI made instant news not so much because of the novelty of the idea, but perhaps most importantly because of the spirit in which the initiative was established. Those who crafted KODI did not mince words. They wanted to see steps Kenya taken to improve governance, and they saw availability and access to data and vital development information as one way of achieving this. Noises soon began being made about “what the other countries in East Africa were doing”. At some point the interest by other countries in the region resembled a school kids’ race to the finishing line. So debates and discussions rolled on, on open this and open that.

A Ugandan friend described to me the nature of the problem that we were dealing with.  Simply put, in the past the collection, processing and use of data for policy making, development planning, and other development purposes were always hierarchical and linear. The model ran as follows: some government ministry or department decided which data was of priority value; it assign the collection and analysis of such data to a statistics bureau; it engaged consultants (based on pre-determined Terms of Reference) to do deepen analysis and draw conclusions; it then published the outcomes in some (authoritative) official document/s; and, you were lucky, you might be invited to a one-hour dissemination meeting.

Well, the landscape has now changed. Technological advances have obviated the need for worrying about multiple paper-based systems for accessing data. Demand for accountability has also grown significantly among common citizens. One illustration of this in the last few months is how Uganda’s minibus drivers and conductors used text-messaging to successfully dislodge from power the previously untouchable Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers’ Association (UTODA). The latter had for countless years imposed themselves on the former charging inexplicable fees and delivering little or nothing in terms of services. Lesson one: technology and empowerment support accountability. However we are not there yet. The real data and/or information that citizens need to make day-to-day decisions and to hold duty-bearers to account is yet to be put within easy reach – which was one of the reasons for the Kampala meeting. The data may be about choices that parents want to make about which schools to take their children to, or the amount of resources that are being ploughed into agricultural advisory services in a given community. The list continues. Partnership with those who have the data is therefore essential.

 

One wonders, all the same, why it required a collection of bold and interested institutions and individuals to bring this issue to the table – again! First, Article 41 of Uganda’s 1995 constitution states that “every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State”. Pursuant to this the country’s parliament passed the “Access to Information Act (2005) whose purposes are to: (a) promote an efficient, effective, transparent and accountable Government; (b) give effect to article 41 of the Constitution by providing the right of access to information held by organs of the State, other than exempt records and information; (c) protect persons disclosing evidence of contravention of the law, maladministration or corruption in Government bodies; (d) promote transparency and accountability in all organs of the State by providing the public with timely, accessible and accurate information; and (e) empower the public to effectively scrutinise and participate in Government decisions that affect them. So, is it a case of a willing spirit but weak flesh? Lesson two: you can have in place impressive policy statements but effectiveness of these will only be realised in actual implementation.

 

Nonetheless a change in the tide seems to be happening. The process of developing a holistic programme, complete with technology and information systems, data, partnerships, analytical tools, feedback loops, capacity building strategies, and all other necessities may well be under way. Naturally the Uganda partners in this process are being realistic, and they decided at the Kampala meeting to adopt a progressive and additive approach. They thus agreed to begin “where they are” and to grow the programme as they move forward. While seeking partnership with government, they also chose not to wait for some kind of “benevolence” in order for them to proceed. Yet, at the same time, they are not unaware of the risks involved: technical, operational, programmatic, financial, etc. Perhaps more importantly, they are viewing the process as a means to meeting those objectives that they have for long focused their energies on – people’s own development. Lesson three: open development and open data allow conceptualisation to focus NOT on complex data, computer systems, advanced communication systems or media images, but as a means towards people’s own decision-making and development. No doubt the tide is changing in the country and in the region.

The writer is Africa regional director for Development Initiatives