Open Data : Shades of Gray

By Rhoda Omenya
  Published 14 Oct 2012
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Open Data has been viewed as the catalyst to improving the individual, society and economy through:
  • Promoted transparency and accountability in the public and private sector - which then leads to a decrease in corruption and promotes wiser use of public resources.
  • Making citizens aware of the resources they have and services they should receive, thereby empowering them with a thrust of self confidence,
  • Improved quality of demand (due to the improved state of awareness), which leads to improved service provision through competitive innovation when progress and performance data are open to all consumers benefits of shared information resources where formal research is made available to inform academic and professional inquiries; this leads to innovative solutions and scientific advancements created to improve the welfare of a nation and its citizens.
  • Evidence based feedback from citizens, ultimately leading to better policy formulation
  • Increased interactions between the private/public sector and their consumers and citizens which implicitly creates a culture of trust among citizens towards their governments.
Despite the wholesome nature and clarity of its values, there are certain areas of Open Data that are not black and white and should not be overlooked when venturing into an Open Data initiative. Some of these areas include:
Citizen Indifference
Citizens have issues and would willingly participate in measures that would reduce or remove them all together.  Kenya is no different with a myriad of issues affecting her from terrorism attacks, to multiple workers’ unions strikes to political bickering. . . And we are facing many problems. A case in study is the Kenya Open Data, a first in Africa and lauded worldwide as the key to moving Kenya in the right direction. Naturally, citizens should have embraced and applied it to their lives therefore increasing their participation and engagement in matters that affect them. However, a year later, the uptake of Open Data is still negligible on all fronts: neither the citizens not the public and private sector are using the portal. Hold that thought though. . .
Negligible Impact
Even where the data has been used for example by developers to make applications that will better the citizen’s welfare, there has been little effect of such services on the common man. Besides the tech community,  the rest of the Kenyans hardly know that these applications exist and if they do, they are not using them. On the flip side where there’s consumption of Open Data and taking the Kenya Budget Explorer, (a visualization of how the Kenyan treasury allocates and institutions spend taxpayers money) as an example; some pitfalls still arise.
Personal Agendas
Open Data is pegged on the honesty and goodwill of those who exploit the data to use it for the benefit of all.However it is possible for persons with ill intentions to exploit this data for their own good. And if personal agenda is the order of the day, lack of consensus is the the result. Lobby groups, government officials, citizens will keep having talk shops but with no conclusion. No one group will concede to the other, no compromise will be reached and this could impede future decisions made concerning allocation and spending. This leads to a: Lack of Trust Where Open Data should have brought a government and its citizens closer, it may work to the contrary by separating them further due to a lack of trust instilled by the spending decisions arising out of personal agendas. Open Data is able to visibly show the sectors that have been favoured at the expense of others and this will not augur well with the citizens affected in those sectors. Distrust can only kill morale to connect with the government and takes them further back in disregarding participation of national matters. Using a snippet of the 2000-2011 GDP dataset from Kenya’s Open Data portal below; the data itself is not exempt from proffering gray areas:  
Data Appeal
Raw data does not encourage one to interact with it as it is less than appealing to the eye. It therefore takes manpower and expertise to convert this data into visualizations that are appealing and that can be understood by the layman. The assumption here is that the manpower and expertise is adequate to the job; however there is no evidence of the same. Thus the ones to benefit from cleaned and visualized data are those who can understand it and who want to clean the data, most likely for their own use.
Less Data
Since anyone can reuse Open Data for free, the creators of that data do not immediately see any returns from their hard work of collecting the data, cleaning it and putting it out there. This may serve as a dis-incentive to them as apart from the government, all other institutions are for-profit and to expect them to spend without gain is in most cases expecting too much. This results in reduced data output from other institutions or output from one source, the government.
How then do we counter the above?
Primarily getting all Open Data actors on board and engaged would help in ensuring the processes are all inclusive. These actors vary from public institutions (government), businesses (startups, IT providers, etc) and other related actors such as the media, researchers, NGOs and of course the ordinary citizen. Capturing the attention of citizens will demand primarily they are made aware that Open Data exists and it is there for their benefit. Governments have to work at pushing out this data into the public sphere. More importantly, developers need to always take a user centered approach in working out solutions for the citizenry. This is the only way to ensure that the solutions meet the citizens’ actual needs. To scale their solutions, they may have to consider external factors such as language barriers, etc. Having the holistic visual of the actors involved, the other logical measure is in ensuring that they interconnectedness between them is in an interdependent, functional manner in working towards a sustainable Open Data ecosystem and promoting a culture of data. In ensuring that there’s a constant stream of data, formidable partnerships with organizations that have a robust information management systems have to be formed and maintained.Thus the government has to work together with NGOs for the sake of maintaining an up to date data system. It can also not be ignored that the people who can use this data initially are the developers. So while it is important to equip the developers and encourage them to use the data through competitions, it is vital to build the capacity of the other actors in using the same data. Whether it is through trainings or workshops, activities to equip the government official, the journalist and down to the grassroots where the common man is have to be carried out. Both for use of the data and for use of the solutions. And for this interconnected to happen, the government has the sole duty of ensuring there’s an enabling environment by having policies, laws and regulations that encourage the production and use of Open Data.
By no means are the problems or the solutions exhaustive but are an introduction to enable us to think beyond the black and white of Open Data, to the shades of gray. . .
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