OPEN UP:

     Open Data is not open to all

The adage “data is the new oil” appears in many discourses across various sectors, be they business, civil society or government. Across the world, data has been embraced as the new capital of the global economy. As cities seek renewed governance systems, improved service delivery and co-operative citizen engagement, the demand to exploit data is immense. The opening of data by governments has raised excitement about its potential to enable public good. Open data is seen as a foundation for a wide range of applications and services designed to improve citizens’ lives (Mutuku & Mahihu, 2014). Founding reasons for making government data available and open were to increase accountability and transparency. Today, at local level, city governments are releasing various datasets, ranging from city administration to urban environment, mobility, economy, demographics and many others that affect urban quality of life. African countries have remained far behind in the data revolution. It has been argued that the continent needs to embrace and harness the unfolding data revolution, especially if it is to achieve the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 targets and its 2030 Agenda’s sustainable development goals*.

Accessibility – Not just open, but also the right data

The ability to discover relevant datasets is a requirement to unlock the potential of open data. For a city government to make their data accessible and shared with the greater public, these initiatives generally begin with a directive, or a policy followed by setting up an open data portal. This was the case with the City of Cape Town in 2014, when it became the first African city to approve an open data policy with a portal. But matching data supply with demand is often not a straightforward process. To promote the use/reuse of data by citizens and other urban stakeholders, governments often host various data challenge competitions and hackathons. But despite these, the response from citizens to exploit open data for innovative purposes has been lacking (Yang and Kankanhalli, 2013). A possible contributing factor to this has been attributed to the fact that little is known regarding how citizens engage with open government data initiatives*.

Governments have since been accused of supplying datasets without complete understanding of what citizens really needed. Results of data reuse are not discussed enough, and there is little feedback provided to governments*.

The Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) – Kenya, the first sub-Saharan country to launch an open data portal, had similar challenges in driving demand a year after its launch. The public had not used the open data portal as widely as it was anticipated*. This has been attributed to a variety of possibilities, for instance, a study by Mejabi et al. (2014), suggested barriers to open data uptake by Nigerian citizens included illiteracy; ignorance; apathy; peoples’ lack of trust in government/ corruption; and, nonchalant attitude of citizens. Others contend the pressing reason is not all citizens have equal privilege and capacity to access and exploit these data platforms, arguing that citizens generally have a poor relationship with data.

With resources often restricted, it is critical for city governments to identify priority areas where open data can provide the most benefit (GovLab, 2020). Citizens can engage and confront governments using data if they have capacity and skills to understand and analyse it.

Citizen-generated data – alternative urban data production

| “Strict definitions of open data can act as a barrier to data production” (Davies et al., 2019). Parallel to the emergence of Open Government Data, alternative forms of data production and sharing are blooming – not necessarily within city governments, but at the urban grassroots level, where citizens and community organisations are collecting, sharing and benefiting from information produced in and about local areas (Ricker et al., 2020). This not only reduces the burden on government to collect urban data, but also equips citizens with skills throughout the data lifecycle (collecting; processing; analysing; using/reuse; improving; validating; and, monitoring data quality).

This way citizens are empowered to effectively use data to solve their problems or confront their local authority. A good case example of citizen-generated data is Map Kibera in Nairobi – a community-managed initiative that has seen a collective effort by slum dwellers from Kibera to collect and map data in their marginalised settlement. The Map Kibera initiative has made the settlement visible through a free and open digital map identifying communal issues such as lack of water, sanitation and security. With this evidence-based map, the citizens of Kibera have been able to lobby and approach their local authority, and highlight the areas that most need services (Taka, 2018).

Prioritising open data portals

Overall results suggest portals are at a very early stage of development in Africa. Studies suggest we need improvements in user help and analysis features, as well as the inclusion of features to help citizens understand the data, such as more charting and analysis (Thorsby et al, 2016).

The Africa Data Revolution Report 2018 strongly asserted there was generally very little commitment from many African governments to publish up-to-date or additional datasets, while there is also very little evidence of use or impact of the open data which is published. Davies et al., (2019) assert that open data in Africa is seen as a secondary priority, isolated from other development agendas, such as infrastructure, education, agriculture, water and health. Open data is not yet engrained in law on the continent, with legal frameworks to support it either incomplete or directly absent (Iglesias, 2019). It has been suggested that African countries encounter difficulties in their capacity to implement those policies intended to make data available and accessible in a user-friendly format (PARIS21 & MIF, 2021). This would seem an important area for initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership – to which at least 15 African countries subscribe – to focus their concerted attention. Other governmental, technical and civic actors can also augment their important roles.

Majaha Dlamini is an urbanist with research interests in open data, civic tech and urban digital innovation. He has working experience in the urban development sector and recently worked with the Civic Tech Innovation Network. He holds a Master of Philosophy, specialising in urban studies, from the University of Cape Town. His research focused on the challenges of implementing an open data policy in the City of Cape Town.

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