With the information revolution now reaching our small towns and villages, the author argues its high time we embraced it!
By Warren Nyamugasira
There is a common saying that if you want to hide information from an African, you put it in a book. That many Africans don’t read much is an open secret. For those who did not have to the chance to go to school, it is not their fault that they cannot read. But the saying was not aimed at them. It is directed at those well schooled Africans who last touch a book the day they finish writing their last formal exam. They graduate from whatever institution without ever discovering that books are a gold mine, the source of all knowledge distilled from the best in all generations and across fields of expertise.
In blaming Africans who, by choice, don’t read, it is important to point out that there has been a real obstacle standing in their way when it comes to how data is packaged. Take Government Data and Information for example. Some of it is in voluminous books whose sheer size is intimidating to an average person. For example, the Ministry of Finance’s Approved Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure 2013, covering both Recurrent and Development figures for the 2013/14 Fiscal Year is a cool 1,118 pages! The smallest report from that source was the Annual Budget Monitoring Report for 2012/13 which is 600 pages. The truth is that there is too much data from multiple sources that oftentimes one is like the blind describing an elephant on the basis of the part they are touching. The more you try to get informed, the more you discover how partial your knowledge was in the first place. And that is not all. Some of these documents are in the public domain while others are not, still protected by the Official Secrets Act of 1964, which is the basis for Public Service Standing Orders that every public servant must sign within months of taking up a job and will be quick to fall back on to in cases of data he or she does not want to release to an inquiring public.
Make no mistake about it, data is good but is better when analysed to be made sense of. Analysis is good but is more useful when it is turned into information. On its part, information works better if it influences policy and practice. Policy is good only if implemented and can translate into improved services to the ordinary people. The link between the big volumes of government data must always be made down to the impact they cause in the lives of ordinary people.
A new global movement, the Open Data movement has emerged and is fast gaining popularity and traction in Uganda. It has its roots in the Open Government Partnership founded in 2009 and launched in 2011. Initially with a membership of eight countries it has since grown to 63 countries in a space of two years. Although unfortunately Uganda has not yet signed, the aim of the movement is providing a platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. In all of these countries, government and civil society are working together to develop and implement ambitious open government reforms to make all data open; all open data accessible and all accessible data usable while all usable data must be accessible to all citizens. In Uganda one of champions of open data is Development Research and Training and partners through www.opendevdata.ug
In the process, it has now become possible for a whole load of data to be joined up and made to ‘speak’ to each other and then made available at as low a level as the district, sub-county and possibly the parish with the aim of improving citizen engagement and leadership decision making at those levels. When this is fully operational and is rolled out to every parish in villages and towns in entire country, data will have been returned to the realm of ordinary persons’ lives. Previously complex data will become part and parcel of ordinary people’s everyday conversations. With so many in villages now having graduates of Universal Primary and Secondary Education, and with the proliferation of FM radio stations, it will no longer be possible to hide information from any Ugandan because they will no longer have to look for information as information will now look for them. We are in the midst of an information revolution!!
The writer is an Economist and Development Activist. This article also was published in The New Vision of April 14, 2014