Time to change a bit the focus of my posts, moving from mobile technologies for development to Open Government Data in low and middle income countries, aka OGD in developing countries aka, for me, OGD for Development.
Open Data (OD), and Open Government Data are very hot topics since a couple of year, and particularly on the international agenda with the launch of the OGP (Open Government Partnership). This is great to see this wave rising, now expanding to developing countries, and I’m very happy to see a huge number of NGO/private org-led initiatives blossoming everywhere in the World, and in particular in developing countries. See e.g. the Uganda open data platform. What is particularly exciting is to see also more and more individuals writing about OGD and best approaches, OD principles etc. The recent OK Fest in Helsinki (I didn’t participate myself by followed as much as possible) was impressive in that regards.
This is all positive, but a good blog post has to be a bit controversial :).
Open Government and its ICT arm OGD is definitely a revolution in the way countries are driven by their leaders. No doubt about that. This is affecting or will affect both developed and developing countries. For instance, there are now 2 government-driven OGD initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, and Ghana). The movement is starting.
Lots of the key ingredients that are usually mentioned in the literature are essential in all countries: top political buy-in, public administration champions, civil society champions, civic hacker groups, etc. My view is that there are also lots of very specific points to consider. The question for me is to discuss whether an initiative in Ghana should be driven in the same way as in the US.
Stated that way, the answer seems quite obvious. But in practice, I see more and more people and organizations talking at a very generic level about Open Data principles, or Open Data policies (see e.g. the great Sunlight Foundation guidelines for Open Data Policies). This is interesting, and applicable in any OD initiative all over the world, but the right question imho, is to know whether the application of these principles or guidelines will result in impact in developing countries.
From my own experience, particularly with the Ghana Open Data Initiative (GODI), I tend to think that there are two critical challenges that are missing and are essential for real impact at citizens’ level: One is access and the other is the relative importance of different datasets.
About access, the founding principles of OGD is in three steps: release of data on the Web, exploitation of these raw data by organizations with ICT capacities to transform them in meaningful services for citizens, use of these services by citizens for a better world ( a world without holes in my street, with a more transparent government, etc.). This is definitely a simplistic view, but on purpose :).
The big part of the research is nowadays on the first step (how can governments release data), and only a bit on the second and third step. In particular, while there is a growing interest in measuring real impact of OGD initiatives, there is one point which is almost always granted and not questioned: the access to services.
The core principle of OGD is that people can freely access data and services through the Web. This is the revolution part of OGD and what Tim Berners-Lee has pushed as the great opportunity (citizen connection to the Web). This is great, but not really the case in developing countries. In most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of Web-connected people is below 10% and often even below 5% including major towns and capital. Close to 0% in rural areas. Therefore, not revisiting this core principle would bring the benefit of OGD to the elite or the foreigners, but surely not the local citizens.
This is for me, one of the specific challenges that an OGD initiative in a developing country should focus on. The answer is quite obviously mobile. It is essential while developing an OGD initiative to investigate and assess how services can be delivered to citizens on mobile: which types of mobile technologies are relevant in the local context, what essential infrastructure are missing, and which regulation needs to be in place to ease the development and deployment of mobile services, etc. I’m sure this is obvious to everybody, but it is not so easy.
As always, there is no one-size-fits-all. If you take the case of Indonesia, it has nothing to do with e.g. Mali in terms of e.g. type of handsets available in the pocket of people, data connectivity, etc. There is a need for a very deep analysis of how mobiles can really become of platform of services for people locally. Obviously, it is relatively independent of an OGD initiative. Indeed, such analysis is essential even without an OGD initiative, just to exploit the mobile opportunity. But any OGD feasibility study should investigate this point in details.
About datasets, in most of OGD guidelines, there is obviously no recommendation about which datasets should be released first. It is always recommended that the first datasets should be low-hanging fruits that will leverage the overall ecosystem. Therefore their selection should/must be the results of a Public/CSO (Civil Society Organizations) dialog that leads to a consensus about what is easy on the government side and what is useful on the CSO side. No question about this approach, but here again evil is in the details. At generic level, this is great, but in practice who should be the people engaged in the dialog? In particular, which type of CSO and which government department?
In my experience, all over the World, in developed and developing countries, the CSO that are answering call for participation in such dialog are always the same type, usually focused on transparency and accountability. This is great, and I would not question the importance of transparency and accountability, but in a developing country context, is it really the most important thing for people who are living with 1$ a day? Honestly I doubt it. I recommend the read and watch of the blog post Does ‘open’ equal ‘accessible’? It includes a very good video (the first one) from a member of Plan International in El Salvador. This is a key point. I tend to think that the biggest potential impact of OGD in developing countries could be in the development sector. The release of data about information such as schools, healthcare center, well maps, soil maps, etc. are potential gold material for NGOs working in education, health or agriculture. All these information that the government has are essential raw data that can serve as the base for development-oriented services that can improve people’ lives. So I believe it is an essential angle to integrate in an OGD initiative.
But this is not as easy as it seems. Here again, the key issue is community building and awareness raising. There is almost no NGO focusing on development involved in dialogs because in most case, they don’t see the link with their work, and the potential. They don’t see the link because it doesn’t exist (you go to a meeting and all the discussion are on T&A topics) AND because they don’t see how such data can help them. This is a gap that I believe should be addressed to bring the impact of OGD at the citizens’ level.
Finally, there are lots of other related (aka sector-specific) challenges, that are, from my perspective, a little less impactful and are starting to be addressed. The best example is the use of technology and OGD opportunity by media organizations. Media organizations are one of the key stakeholders in any OGD initiatives as they can find tons of useful information to report to the public. However, in most developing countries, there are very little ICT capacities within media organization, limiting their capacity to exploit the potential of released datasets. This is an issue that is currently being tackled through initiatives like code4kenya that was the first of this type, as far as I know. Its goal is to provide ICT/OD capacities to media organizations so that they can realize the power of these new tools and change their way of working. Such initiative is currently being replicate in different countries like Ghana, and aside, there are lots of events such as Data Journalism Bootcamp that are blossoming in many places.
In summary, if we don’t take these specific issues seriously into account, the big risk, imho, is that government in developing countries will engage in OGP/OGD in a way that the international community (hackers, OGP, World Bank etc.) would be very excited and enthusiastic, but at the end of the day there is zero impact on people’ life in the country, or only for the elite as usual. So I hope to see in the future a real community of practitioners interested in OGD in developing countries that will identify and tackle the specific challenges of such initiatives in a developing country context.