An Open Experiment: Increasing Open Data Consumption in Kenya

By Leo Mutuku
  Published 12 Jul 2012
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The Open Data Pre-Incubator (Part I) Background The open data platform officially turnedone on the 8th of July 2012.This ought to be a point of celebration. As a country, Kenya has come a long way; think back to a few decades ago, the era of monitored and controlled speech and all the restrictions with regards to access to public information.
Yes, we need to celebrate the steps that the government has taken to embrace openness, accountability and transparency by releasing their data through the open data platform. There is a worldwide realization that citizens are the key drivers to high levels of growth and governments are increasingly engaging their citizens in governance. By empowering citizens in this manner, governments and public institutions not only enable the citizens to keep them in check through feedback mechanisms but also promote the citizens’ ability to contribute collectively to solve problems that directly affect them using local solutions. Open Data is just one of the many ways to achieve this and the Kenyan Government is a pioneer in opening up its datasets, being one of the first 25 countries worldwide to conduct this exercise and the second in Africa.
Looking back at this year in the life of Kenya Open Data Initiative, there has been a lot of activity around this platform. From statistics provided by the Kenya ICT Board, there are more than 430 datasets uploaded to the website, hundreds of thousands of views (majority from Kenya) and more than 5000 downloads of the same datasets. More than 50 applications that pull their data from this platform have been developed and deployed: some notable ones are Mzalendo, County Score Card, Ufahamu etc.; to all other initiatives inspired by this momentous step in our democracy: the digitizing of Hansard issues dating as far back as 1911. Other countries in the region are using Kenya’s Open Data platform as a standard, a benchmark, as they go about launching their own initiatives. Where is the Impact? It is largely impressive. But… there is always a but… Given 430+ datasets and increasing demand for more, what is the actual usage and impact of this platform? We need to take a step back here and scrutinize the objectives of open data. Open Data is supposed to be free for all, open access, easily manipulated and shared public information. “But is open data really open?” begs the question. Who is accessing and consuming this data? How are they doing this? We closely study the outcomes and impact of the platforms already riding on this open data and compare them to famous ones worldwide, such as Fix my Streetand Ushahidi. Verdict: their reach and effect is observed to be really wanting. The impact is barely scalable and the awareness around these platforms almost zero.    
Looking at the open data ecosystem then, the largest percentage of the population, those we call, in huge quotation marks, "the uneducated citizens”, has barely interacted with the platform. These are people who are not experts in reading data and deriving knowledge from data. We need then, the ‘educated citizens’ and the ‘developers’, to step in and team up to effectively manipulate this data into useful information that generates knowledge for the masses. That, I believe, is the only way we can promote transparency, accountability, citizen engagement and proper service delivery from our government using open data. When we increase awareness on the state of these elements of governance through query of information derived from the open data portal, there is, consequently, an increase in conversations around the same and an evidence-based demand for proper service delivery as a result of increased engagement of the ordinary citizen. This is a long shot, but it is achievable. Part II of this post will be published next week.
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