The Impact of a Move Towards Open Data in West Africa

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The concept of “open data” is not new, but its definition is quite recent. Since computers began communicating through networks, engineers have been developing standards to share data. The open data philosophy holds that some data should be freely available for use, reuse, distribute and publish without copyright and patent controls. Several mechanisms can also limit access to data like restricted database access, use of proprietary technologies or encryption. Ultimately, open data buttresses government initiatives to boost innovation, support transparency, empower citizens, encourage accountability, and fight corruption.

West Africa is primed for open data. The region experienced a 6% growth in 2014, according to the Africa Development Bank. Its Internet user network is also growing: 17% of the sub-Saharan population owned a unique smartphone in 2013, a number projected to grow to 37% by 2020 according to the GSMA. To improve the quality of governance and services in the digital age, the region must develop new infrastructures, revise digital strategies, simplify procurement procedures, adapt legal frameworks, and allow access to public data. Open data can enhance local economies and the standard of living.

This paper speaks towards the impact of open data in West Africa. First it assesses open data as a positive tool for governance and civil society. Then, it analyzes the current situation of open data across the region. Finally, it highlights specific best practices for enhancing impact in the future.

The Argument for Open Data in West Africa

Open data offers many improvements for governance and services. As technology allows for more interoperability and a stronger free-flow of information, the government becomes more transparent and efficient. Creating a system of open data, however, causes a sequential and practical dilemma in West Africa. In general, public institutions embrace open data policies because they tend to improve service provisions. But in order to implement open data policies, nations need proper infrastructures, a high Information and Communications Technology (ICT) literacy rate, adapted national policies and strategies, national leadership, local intermediaries, local competencies and plenty enthusiasm among public institutions, civil societies, ICT companies, NGOs and academics. Furthermore, many West African nations struggle from corruption, translucency, and ethnocentric isolation from other nations.

What, then, can West African countries do when its citizens reside in enclaves where the importance of the tribe overshadows the importance of the nation-state? What are the constraints for West African countries currently managing open data initiatives or projects, and what are the impacts?

Open Data Developments in West Africa

The current partition of West Africa is quite recent. European powers ruled the territory until the 1960s then Africans and Europeans designed new nations. After more that fifty years of independence, West African nations continue to explore the nation-state concept dominated by tribal values. The Western world faced similar challenges while wars and conflict built national identities.

West Africa followed a different history and therefore must adapt an open data philosophy to fit local needs and cultures. Of the fifteen countries of West Africa, encompassing Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo, only eight countries currently have open data projects. Following is a brief overview of each of their open data policies.

Benin: This country is making progress on transparency while datasets online provide lists of companies registered in Benin, demographic, economic and social statistics and national budgets.

Burkina Faso: Launched an Open Data Initiative in September 2014. It provides to the public more than 150 datasets, mainly about health and education. Another service called “Our Congressmen” allows citizens to directly contact congressional representatives. Other platforms provide useful information about company registration, legislation, governmental budget, election results, the national map, national statistics and transport timetables, all available online. Moreover the Burkinabe government offers a platform for the Council of Ministers to improve communication within government (currently still under development). Finally, the Open Street Map community actively maps the territory through the WikiProject for Burkina Faso.

Ghana: The Open Data movement can be traced back to a Web Foundation project in 2010, which established an initial partnership with the government of Ghana through the National Information and Technology Agency. In 2012, a platform was launched to promote the release of government data for public re-use. Online datasets provide information about national statistics, electoral commission data and the 2014 budget statement and economic policy. Code for Ghana promotes responsive, innovative and effective governance by recruiting data fellows and developers to work on six-month open data projects. One such project, GotToVote, helps citizens project how a national event affects their personal lives or local community. Another project, Odekro, monitors members of parliament by making parliamentary debate proceedings freely accessible to the citizens of Ghana.

Ivory Coast: Currently lacks an Open Data initiative. However, it is possible to get some online datasets about national statistics, electoral results, governmental budget, company registration and national map.

Mali: In July 2013, the ICT company Yeleman started an open data initiative to grant access to datasets such as presidential election data, national cities, primary schools and power-cuts in Bamako. The Ministry of Finance also provides governmental budget data, and some national laws are online.

Nigeria: The Nigeria Open Data Access portal provides datasets on health, national budget, transportation, economy and environment. The Edo State in the southern region of the country has its own open data platform providing more than 200 datasets from the State Government, international organizations and non-state actors. Another project, BudgIT, opens access to public budgets and accompanying tools and graphics. Code for Africa also opened a chapter in Nigeria. Federal initiatives provide electoral documents, postcode lookups, and country statistics. The independent National Electoral Commission offers election results data, the Federation Federal Ministry Of Finance delivers the 2014 Budget Appropriation Act and the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency grants access to the Nigerian Oil Spill Monitor.

Senegal: Senegal Ouvert is an open data initiative driven by the Open Knowledge Foundation Labs. This platform delivers information about commerce, education, health, demography, energy and animal husbandry. The Open Street Map community also works closely with the city of Dakar to map the city and the country.

Sierra Leone: Its open data initiative comprises one of the Commitments in Sierra Leone’s first open government partnership action plan. The Humanitarian Open Street Map Team worked also in Sierra Leone on the 2014 West Africa Ebola Response.

Some supranational programs also exist such as OpenAfrica and open data for Africa. Each offer access to catalogues of 1900 datasets and 400 datasets, respectively.

Of these countries, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone have effective national open data initiatives. How can we measure the impact of these initiatives in these countries? How are they affecting the lives of citizens and governments?

Impact Measurement and Best Practices for Development

Empirical impact measurement, unfortunately, has proven difficult in West Africa due to a lack of public studies with sound methodologies and adapted indicators. The Open Data Barometer Global Report has created a classification system that classifies Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Mali as capacity-constrained countries, and the government of Burkina Faso is currently working on an impact study. However, a majority of public entities are not encouraging open data initiatives because of transparency constraints. Open data projects documented were often sourced from a small group of individuals advocating for change. An open data initiative requires information-sharing to build proper and clean datasets. Citizens also require a suitable network to access an open data platform, which is rarely the case outside major cities unless an adapted platform already exists. Providing services through a low bandwidth connection, text-messaging software or even through offline services could present a solution for a region where about 55% population lives outside major cities. Knowledge of ICT and civil society participation also play crucial roles in developing a functional open data ecosystem.

Moreover, public sectors themselves must shift from a mindset of competition to one of information sharing. Public and private stakeholders are gradually building partnerships in order to share infrastructure, but the foundation and capital remain constrained within national borders. Strong regulatory frameworks and shared best-practices improve economic competiveness and provide an affordable Internet network to end-users.

First and foremost, West African communities must enculturate values and principles of an open world that transcend ethnic constraints, reinforce the nation-state and make government data publicly available. As a result of social media, civil societies have been able to interact with governments to build more democratic societies. An open and free Internet is upon West Africa, and civil societies can now work to build more democratic societies where military apprentices no longer can implement despotic domination.

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Olivier Alais is currently a research fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. By profession he is a senior Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialist with deep expertise in both business and technology solutions. He has pursued numerous governmental ICT projects including serving as an Advisor in New Technology for the French Embassy in Burkina Faso and as the Program Director for IESC/Geekcorps in Mali to increase connectivity and bring eGovernment services in remote areas. Olivier is most recently involved in the development of the open source software policy for Mauritius, the improvement of the international Internet connectivity in Comoros, and the eGovernment Web Development Strategy for Liberia.

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