Monthly Archives: June 2014

Open Data: Can It Play A Role In Poverty Eradication?

By Emily Mullins

Open data is widely believed to have the potential to positively influence transparent and accountable governance across the world including in developing countries likeUganda. But how can open data help in eradicating poverty? This was the focus of a workshop hosted by Development Initiatives (DI) and Development Research and Training (DRT) on June 5, 2014 in Kampala, Uganda.

The workshop served as the presentation of research findings comparing Kenya and Uganda on how current open data initiatives in the two countries are contributing to poverty eradication and how such initiatives could be strengthened.

Bernard Sabiti, Program Officer at DRT, said although the study found no immediately clear link between open data and poverty eradication in Kenya and Uganda, this did not rule out the possibility for future linkage. He noted that in Kenya, ICT sector growth had driven increased government openness, with initiatives such as the Kenya Open Data portal promoting access to resource allocation information. However, up-to-date data and information remained unavailable. In Uganda, accessibility to public information was limited due to an underdeveloped ICT sector and reliance by government departments on traditional means of information sharing. While Kenya’s Right to Information law remained in draft form and Uganda’s 2005 Access to Information law remained largely unimplemented, accessibility of information in the two countries was further hampered by the rural-urban divide in literacy, access and use of digital technologies.

The study found that often, actors such as civil society, the private sector, the tech community, media, citizens, and academia work in isolation, producing good data but failing to collaborate to extend its usefulness and impact. It suggested that these actors should work more with the government to explore ways that open data can positively influence policy decisions to eradicate poverty.

In Kenya, Mr. Sabiti said, stakeholders and beneficiaries needed to be encouraged to utilise the available data, while encouraging government to open up more data. In Uganda, initial focus needed to be on financial investment in open data processes and capacity building particularly at central government level to implement and strengthen existing access to information frameworks.

However, Charles Lwanga-Ntale, Regional Director of DI Africa, emphasised that open data should not be seen as an end in itself but as a means to reducing poverty. He argued that open data can play a role if the quality, quantity and accessibility of information available to monitor economic, social and environment performance at the national and global levels can enable governments and citizens to track development progress better and to make more informed decisions.

Mr. Lwanga-Ntale said advancements and increase in use of ICTs had created greater demand for openness in Kenya and Uganda. Accordingly, governments needed to take positive steps by embracing open practices and amending policies that restrict access to public information.

“Many political leaders fear openness, and they are attempting to hold onto power in a space that is becoming less and less easy for them to control. Those who tend to favour open data generally come from lower ranks, and have less influence in decision making,” he said.

The utility and appropriateness of data in the public domain emerged as key themes during open floor discussions. One workshop participant questioned whether the youth in the two countries were interested in engaging with open data, or if the information provided was simply too overwhelming to be used effectively by ordinary citizens. Another asked whether the intended recipients of data were being adequately engaged in determining exactly what data they want or need.

Many agreed that these questions raised significant challenges: that open data initiatives sometimes fall into the trap of mass information dumping without consideration of how the information can be utilised. Since data collection can be expensive, such mass data dumps are neither productive nor efficient because the intended beneficiaries remain unable to engage with the information and it remains un-used.

As a means to overcome this, participants said there was a need for more discussion with proposed consumers of data and for data producers to try not to assume the needs of users. The importance of engaging infomediaries such as the media, civil society and community based organisations so that they interact and translate the data for the wider populace was highlighted. Doing so could help create visual aids and simple, meaningful data that more citizens can understand.

Indeed, as pointed out by Vincent Bagiire, Chair of the ICT Committee in the Ugandan Parliament in his key note address at the workshop, a significant challenge to open data in countries like Uganda and Kenya was the tendency for initiatives to rely “too much on the internet” yet citizens as the intended beneficiaries were predominantly based in rural areas where internet access was low.

Sam Mutabazi, the Executive Director of Uganda Road Sector Support Initiative, provided an example of the utility of open data in resource allocation. He presented on prevailing issues in the road sector, such as mismanagement and poor quality control. He argued that open contracting – the disclosure of information on tendering, performance and project status in the sector – could help increase public engagement in monitoring implementation and thus better quality roads.

Overall, the workshop showed that while open data has not been fully realised in East Africa, there was significant potential for it to contribute to overcoming poverty. A lack of funding, especially in Uganda, and internet accessibility issues serve as major barriers to data openness, but the growing youth population, with their tech savviness, have the capacity to demand greater data openness from their governments. Meanwhile, a “unified movement” of multiple stakeholders need to come together to establish and understand the needs of open data consumers and producers so that the data provided can be fully utilised by all not only toward good governance but also overcoming poverty in the respective countries.

Emily Mullins is a 2014 AidData Summer Fellow stationed at CIPESA where she is engaged in geocoding methodology and trainingShe holds a Masters in International Affairs from the George Bush School at the Texas A&M University, USA.

This article was originally published at CIPESA website

From the Outside Looking Out: An Outside Perspective on Open Data in Uganda

By Ari Weiss

On June 5th, 2014, a conference hosted by Development Research and Training (DRT) was held at the Hotel Africana in downtown Kampala. The conference was held to disseminate the findings of a study DRT had conducted on the state of Open Data in Uganda and Kenya, in addition to what effects, if any, it has had on resource allocation of government public goods.

For the many Ugandan NGOs that attended, the conference was a highly anticipated event, in which representatives from national and international governmental organizations rubbed shoulders with government officials from Parliament and the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics with the aim of making data on government budgets and contracts more open and publicly available. However, for a foreigner like myself, it was an eye-opening experience that taught me the importance of Open Data as not only just a tool for academics interested in research but for reshaping the way Ugandans interact with their government.

My experience with open data before attending the conference was colored by privilege and myopia. In the United States, most data, at least that which is related to budgeting and public resource allocation, is public. With a few clicks on a web browser, I can access Federal Reserve data on interest rates and loans, current public budget and resource allocations, or the health and the current state of most public infrastructure projects. And this is just government data. Phone applications allow me to find the cheapest prices for petroleum, food, or hotel rooms, and compare them all side by side. The prevalence of easily accessible and useful data is something that has been so universal that when I heard about the Open Data conference, I failed to understand how it could be so importance that a conference would be called on it.

The report’s findings completely disabused me of that notion. The conference made clear just how many aspects of open data that I take for granted, from the ability of the government to hold contractors accountable to the ability for me to find the best restaurant, are unavailable due to the lack of open data.

As both the Opening Speaker, DRT Director Beatrice Magumbe, and second Speaker, Development Initiatives, Africa Hub Regional Director Charles Lwaga-Ntale made clear, there are different levels at which different types of data are needed. At the individual level, Open Data’s potential is obvious: Every day, I pass by dozens of petrol stations, all of which sell petroleum for a different price. As far as the stations are concerned, the market extends as far as their line of sight. As I’ve adjusted to living in Kampala, I’ve noticed that different areas of the city sell food for different prices. These are things that open data can solve. It can create larger markets, and help people become better consumers. At higher levels, communities can demand services for the government that they might need, such as health care or building infrastructure, in addition to keeping an eye on how well government officials are representing their interests.

However, the report, delivered by DRT Programme Officer Bernard Sabiti, made it clear that simply making data more open is not enough. The report, which detailed the current progress made by Kenya and Uganda to make Data more Open and accessible, found that, despite gains in government transparency, that increased accessibility had failed to influence the allocation of government public goods.

There were many reasons for this, both from the supply (government officials) and demand (journalists and citizenry) sides of resource allocation. On the Supply side, governments still remain wary of committing to giving out information that they fear could be used against them. On the demand side, although data is more available, the abstract spreadsheets and tables that is usually presented in make it difficult and time consuming for the average person to understand it, and make it usable. Often, out in Villages, where there is little to no internet access, it is still inaccessible. As Charles Lwanga-Ntale noted during his speech, “Data means nothing until it is usable.”

While the report concluded that, to make supply factors more salient in making open data a more powerful and transformative force in Ugandan society, it would need to find champions in government willing to forgo their own personal incentives, this seems unlikely. There is very little incentive, particularly with the 2016 election looming, for government officials make decisions that are against their own interests.

To me, the real change will most likely come from the demand side, where citizens with more information and better access to data can demand their share of resources from their leaders. Data needs to be made more accessible, easier to see and understand, and more relevant for the average person. Most people want to know where they can get the best price for Matooke, or the cheapest rent. This seems like it is within reach, whether through phone-accessible applications or the concerted work of journalists and data analysts to present and display usable data in novel ways.

Many of these concerns were echoed by CIPESA founder and Member of Parliament for Bunya West County Vincent Bagiire. As Chair of the ICT government parliamentary Committee, the Hon. Bagiire noted how Open Data is used neither to inform budget decisions, nor has it been used to lobby for government reforms. Much of this is due to the lack of computer access in Uganda, and that other ways of reaching people, such as through cell phone applications, need to be explored.

While I was expecting the discussions about government budgets and resource allocation, I was also surprised to learn that even the government can benefit from open data. As an American, I’m used to government contracts having a built in accountability mechanism, where the government has oversight over progress made by private companies, and fraud is minimized. Sam Mutabazi, the Executive Director of Uganda’s Road Sector Initiative, delivered an enlightening talk that explained how contracts with Chinese Construction companies often lack any form of oversight; firms usually complete the projects with minimal effort, producing shoddy roads that crumble to dust soon after. The collapse of the National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) shortly after the conference exemplified this trend. Without open data to provide some sort of oversight, even well-meaning government officials are left helpless to change anything.

Despite the challenges that both government officials and ordinary citizens alike face, the way forward in the wake of the DRT report came, ironically, right before it, during Charles Lwanga-Ntale’s talk, where he explained how “data is not usable until it is presented in a coherent message, messages are not usable until they become policy, policy is meaningless without action, and actions are not effective until they can change lives”. Leaving the conference, I felt that, by presenting data in ways that make it easy to understand, people will be able to turn it into useful tools that can form real change.

Corruption thrives in the dark; Seeing what a detriment it is to Ugandan political and economic advancement made me realize just how open data can shed light on every aspect of Ugandan life, and how important it is to support such initiatives. Coming from a place where open data thrives, I was never able to see the difference it can make in people’s real lives. I left the conference a firm believer in the power of open data, and look forward to the next steps in making it a reality in Uganda.

Ari Weiss is an AidData Fellow and DRT Intern

 

The Role of Transparency and Accountability in Uganda’s Development

By Hilda Namakula

Transparency means openness, communication and accountability and this operates in such a way that it’s easy for others to see what actions are performed. Transparency is simply defined as the perceived quality of intentionally shared information from the sender (Wikipedia). This is a wide topic that cuts across from salaries of the civil servants, management and good governance. Transparency is categorized into two, radical transparency which is a management method where nearly all the decisions are made publicly and corporate transparency which involves the concept of removing all boundaries and free, easy access to corporate information (Simba, S.K 2012: Theories and practices of good governance, college of social sciences notes)

In politics, transparency is used as a means of holding public officials accountable and fighting corruption and this can easily be used as a “medicine” to the “ache” (corruption) of most low developed countries like Uganda. When there’s transparency in every economic, social and political activities of a country then the development will be hyper and also standards of living upgrade. Transparency is beneficial because it fights corruption in most countries that’s why most MDCs have low corruption levels and corruption is holding heavy sentence as a crime. Transparency in these countries’ governments is one of the major attribute because nearly, most of the decisions are made publically and they in most cases favor the civilians. (Wikipedia)

A case in point is the United Kingdom where radical transparency is practiced and they have transparency foundations that advocate for transparency not only in their country but also other countries like Uganda. I believe that if Uganda adopts such development motives the country will move forward and she will achieve her” vision 2040” as planned by the current government and will be ranked among the fast developing countries because through transparency the major causes of poverty like corruption, illiteracy and lack of communication between the leaders and their subjects will be minimized, this will then easily move our motherland Uganda forward.

Transparency can be increased in Uganda through effective communication to the people about its positive effects. This can be done through the use of the media (radio and television, writing articles about transparency in the most read newspapers) and also carrying out public dialogues about transparency, openness and accountability. At the local level using drama and skits about transparency should be done at town council and village headquarters for people in rural areas to be aware of transparency and also buy ideas from the more developed countries to start up foundations that advocate for transparency in Uganda.

There’s progress already being made in Uganda where Organizations Development Research and Training (DRT) in partnership with Development Initiatives have started up projects like one on Data interoperability that have a major aim of joining and analyzing data to make it more understandable to the public including those in rural areas because most of the information is put in books yet Ugandans have a poor reading culture. With such projects in place transparency will improve hence “MOVING UGANDA FORWARD”

Hilda Namakula, a student of Makerere University is an intern at Development Research and Training