Using open data to boost transparency and accountability in governance

 JAMES RATEMO in Nairobi
The reality of Kenya becoming a knowledge economy is quickly dawning and the era of transparency in governance is here with us.
Kenya’s launch of an open data website has already attracted international limelight and the country has earned position on the global map of open society.

World Bank Country Director Johannes Zutt on Friday said Kenya becomes the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to avail government open data as he urged other African countries to follow suit.

“Open data creates a powerful relationship between data providers and application developers…I hope Kenya leads other African countries in that direction (going open)…open data has been the main puller of visitors to the World bank website,” said Zutt.

Mr Zutt said Kenya has already entered into a special relationship with US government and other governments that have adopted ‘open governance’ and this week Dr Ndemo has been invited to the White house for a special meeting on open society.

The meeting shall bring together governments that have adopted open data policies and other civil society stakeholders.

Countries running open data government portals include US, Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, India among others and the trend is spreading fast worldwide.

Mr Zutt said Kenya’s open portal will harness power of Internet and mobile phone applications, lead to savings in government work and improved service delivery.

“This move will fuel innovation and lead to booming development in the ICT sector. Open data leads to open knowledge and all Kenyans will have access to the information about problems facing Kenya and seek ways to solve the problems,” said Mr Zutt.

Gone are the days where hoarding of information was the norm in government circles.

Public data will no longer be kept in shelves to gather dust and in formats unusable by the general public.

The government has released several large datasets, including the national census and statistics on government spending at national and county level to enhance transparency in governance and access to information.

The data presented in user- friendly format is now available online via an open data portal (www.opendata.go.ke) launched by President Mwai Kibaki on Friday in Nairobi.

Currently much of the public data is in hard copy and other static formats that make their use and manipulation near to impossible.

Worse still, to access such data one had to seek clearance from permanent secretaries of relevant ministries or buy it from the Government printer after going through a bureaucratic clearance process.

Launching the portal on Friday in Nairobi, President Mwai Kibaki directed Ministry of Information and Communication to ensure Internet connectivity cost for end users is lowered to allow quick and widespread utilization of the data by citizens.

“The portal shall enhance accountability and improve governance in our country. Citizens will be able to keep track of government delivery and hold leaders accountable in use of public resources,” said Mr Kibaki.

He said the website will facilitate successful implementation of the new constitution as it will empower citizens to fully participate in the process from an informed perspective.

“With the open data portal, such obstacles will be a thing of the past. Information is power and we are aiming to empower citizens by enhancing their access to usable data that was not accessible easily to the public,” said Ministry of Information Permanent Secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo.

The data, now available to researchers, web and software developers and the general public is in a flexible, user-friendly format that will allow users to view and compare information at national, province and county levels.

“For the first time, Kenyans will have information about their community at their fingertips allowing them to make informed decisions at a personal level—currently most decisions people make are not scientific since they are not based on data yet data is available but inaccessible,” said Dr Ndemo.

The Permanent Secretary said the portal is part of an initiative of pushing local content to the Internet and to offer some of the over the 70,000 Kenyans who graduate from Kenyan colleges annually to manipulate the data for beneficial use.

“By creating a knowledge society, you create a knowledge economy…we do not want to lag behind as we watch other countries releasing data to their people for profitable use…we have not even scratched the surface in terms of data, we are working o datacenters which was our last piece of infrastructure development,” he said.

The information on the portal is from published Government Data from the ministries of Finance, Planning, Local Government, Health, Education and Kenya National Bureaus of Statistics.

According to Dr Ndemo, already much of this information is available at the World Bank and United Nations thus it beats logic why it has not been openly availed to citizens.

Dr Ndemo said the world over, governments are adopting the concept of open data to reap benefits of a more informed citizenry as well as better provide services since legally much of  government data should be open and easily accessible to citizens it was collected from.

This, he said, would deter public servants and politicians from vices such as fraud that thrive in situations where secrecy and monopoly of information abounds.

With this launch, Kenya becomes a leader among developing countries in the adoption of open data—a movement that is gathering momentum globally.

Dr Ndemo said data users will be able to create maps and other visualizations and directly download underlying data for their own uses.

“Data is not information until it is converted to make sense to users…that is what we have done at the portal,” Dr Nemo said.

This has never happened before and it welcomes an era of openness where the citizen will be empowered to put leaders to account in the use and distribution of public resources.

For instance it will now be near impossible to misuse public funds since all records pertaining spending shall be available online for citizens to scrutinize and ascertain if ‘what is on the paper tallies with what is on the ground’.

For decades it has been practice of some unscrupulous government officials to steal public funds and lie on paper that the money has been spent to implement non-existent projects.

With the open data portal constituents will track expenditure of CDF monies and point out discrepancies between expenditure reports and reality at the grassroot.

Dr Ndemo said the Ministry of Information and Communications will give grants to support the development of innovative high-impact web and mobile applications to ensure useful and relevant applications are built.

Through the Kenya ICT Board, the Ministry will make a Call for Proposals for ideas on how to use government data. The Call for Proposals is open from July 8 – August 8; the best proposals will receive $50,000 each (for companies) and $ 10,000 (for teams and individuals). At least 30 grants will be awarded in 2011.

An initiative spearheaded by the Ministry of Information and Communications, the portal is managed by the Kenya ICT Board in partnership with the World Bank and Socrata, a US-based developer and provider of Open Data Services, that enable federal, state, and local governments to dramatically improve the reach, usability and social utility of their public information assets.

Private web and content developers also played part in setting up the portal.

Media Council of Kenya Chairman Levi Obonyo said the government’s move portends well for Kenya in general but will particularly boost the work of the media industry.

“It means that journalists will be able to access a lot of information that they need for their work easily unlike previously. Since media plays the watchdog role this is very facilitative in that function and I think most journalists will or should welcome this launch,” said Obonyo.

Obonyo said the new constitution provides for expanded  freedom to information access but alot needs to be done to ensure he Freedom of Information Bill (FOI), which is in the pipeline, becomes law.

“With the new constitution there is obviously a greater opening and emerging forthrightness in providing information. But this culture is not yet entrenched,” said Dr Obonyo.

Dr Obonyo said certain sectors of the civil service are yet to fully embrace the spirit of openness.

“…We should not look only at the civil service. There is a tendency to assume that this the sector that is closed up. But withholding information takes place both in the public and private sector and both sectors need as much openness as is good for the society,” said Dr Obonyo.

Dr Ndemo said the FOI bill is currently at the cabinet level before it goes to Parliament for debate before it is signed into law by the President.

Before the bill is signed into law it therefore means that only published data is the one to be available on the open data portal and not other data like the popular Ndung’u and Ouko murder reports which have generated a lot of controversy in and outside parliament.

However, Ndemo said the new constitution, which is superior to the FOI bill provides expressly for freedom to access public information thus it is just a matter of time before all the useful information held by government is released for public consumption.

According to Michael Murungi, an ICT legal expert, the new constitution obliges government and parliament to ensure free flow of information and the FOI will outline the processes to be followed to achieve that objective.

To facilitate smooth implementation of the FOI bill, three outstanding
legislation are required including the Access to Information Act, The
Data Management and Protection Act, and The Privacy Act.

According to  Alex Gakuru, Chairman, ICT Consumers Association of  Kenya,  whereas these laws are yet to be enacted legislators together with Committee on the Implementation of the
Constitution are logically expected to hasten the enactment of the three laws.

Gakuru says Kenya’s step is comparable to the US “Open Gov Initiative” ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/open) which  was off to a great start, with hundreds of thousands of
data sets becoming available, and entrepreneurs building thousands of
innovative applications.

“Democracy dies behind closed doors. This historic event marks the end
of a siri kali (Swahili for top secret) era constructed on a colonial relic that founded,
facilitated and perpetuated a hitherto information access caste
society,” argues Gakuru.

Mr Gakuru says top ruling class echelons thrived on concealing information secretly
released to a privileged few for self-serving interests giving rise to a situation that made the public lose faith in all political leaders and public institutions.

“The power class had sanitized corruption as “standard operating procedure” ridiculed and
punished honest officials who acted in public interest … one may be excused for reading this government openness ceremony as a major step in reclaiming our long lost national
values direction with far reaching social transformation implications,” said Mr Gakuru.
Echoing Dr Obonyo’s sentiments, Mr  Gakuru  said journalists’ agenda-setting stories will be based on solid official data and information translating to improved media professionalism and
reduced speculative reporting  due to insufficient information.

“Public Servants will henceforth live in glass houses, everything they do will be seen, everything they say will be heard and every expenditure scrutinized,” said Mr Gakuru.
Peter Warutere, Communications Officer, World Bank said release of data to the public is key for development and building a knowledge economy.
“It is important that you provide the right data and it must be in the right format. This is the starting step of a long journey to creating a knowledge based economy,” said Warutere.

With statistics showing that close to 12 million Kenyans can access the Internet, Dr Ndemo said the government is committed to ensure the process of data provision is sustainable.

Already digitization of records at the ministries of land, health, education and the state law office is ongoing with the parliamentary hansard and Kenya gazettes already present online.

The digitization of government records is part of the agenda in Kenya’s Vision 2030 where ICT forms a major pillar.

Kenya is globally recognized as a leader in development of mobile applications and according to Dr Ndemo, data will drive the growth of this sub sector.

To make the open data portal a reality, the World Bank has financed acquisition of a sophisticated software from the US-based company, Socrata, at a cost of about $60,000 annually for the next three years. Thereafter the government will have to seek own mechanism to sustain the project.

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One response to “Using open data to boost transparency and accountability in governance

  1. Pingback: Kenya frees govt data on the internet

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