An urbanist with research interests in open data, civic tech, and urban digital innovation
Majaha Dlamini is an urbanist with research interests in open data, civic tech, and urban digital innovation. He has working experience in the urban development sector and recently worked with the Civic Tech Innovation Network. He holds a Master of Philosophy specializing in Urban Studies from the University of Cape Town. His research focused on the challenges of implementing an open data policy in the City of Cape Town.
Making Open Data Count: Challenges to development impact
‘The result indicates that an appreciable effort is being made in the creation of data portals; however, more countries need to take the giant stride to data provisioning in the open formats.’ (Bello et al., 2016).
The cliché “Data is the new oil” appears in many discourses from various sectors of life, be it in business, civil society, or in government.
All over the world, data has been embraced as the new capital of the global economy, and as cities seek renewed governance systems, improved service delivery, and cooperative citizen engagement, the demand to exploit data is immense. Opening of data by governments has come with excitement about its potential towards enabling public good. Open data is seen as a foundation for a wide range of applications and services designed to improve citizen’s lives (Mutuku and Mahihu, 2014). Founding reasons for making government data available and open were aimed at increasing accountability and transparency. Today city governments at local level are releasing various datasets ranging from, city administration datasets, to urban environment, mobility, economy, demographics, and many other datasets that affect urban quality of life. African countries have remained far behind in the data revolution. It has been argued that the continent needs to embrace and harness the unfolding data revolution especially if it were to achieve its Africa Union’s Agenda 2063 targets and the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Van Belle, 2018).
Accessibility – Not just open, but also right data
The ability to discover relevant datasets is a requirement to unlock the potential of open data. For a city government to make their data accessible and shared with the greater public, these initiatives generally begin with a directive, or a policy followed by setting up an open data portal as was the case with the City of Cape Town in 2014 when it became the first African city to approve an open data policy with a portal.
But matching data supply with demand is often not a straightforward process. To promote the use/reuse of data by citizens and other urban stakeholders, governments often host various data challenge competitions and hackathons, but despite these, the response from citizens to exploit open data for innovative purposes has still been lacking (Yang and Kankanhalli, 2013). A possible contributing factor to this has been alluded to the fact that little is known regarding how citizens engage with Open Government Data initiatives (Purwanto et al., 2020).
Governments have since been accused of supplying datasets without complete understanding of what citizens really needed. Results of data reuse are not discussed enough and there is little feedback provided to governments (Lnenicka and Nikiforova, 2021).
The Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) – Kenya the first Sub-Saharan African country to launch an open data portal had similar challenges in driving demand a year later after its launch, whereby the public had not used the open data portal as widely as it was anticipated (Muigai, 2014). This has been attributed to a variety of possibilities, for instance, a study by Mejabi et al. (2014), suggested, barriers to open data uptake by Nigerian citizens included illiteracy; ignorance; apathy; peoples’ lack of trust in government/corruption; and nonchalant attitude of citizens. Others have also contended that the pressing reason is the fact that not all citizens have the equal privilege and capacity to access and exploit these data platforms, arguing that citizens generally have a poor relationship with data (Certomá et al., 2017).
With resources often restricted, it is critical for city governments to identify priority areas where open data can provide the most benefit (GovLab, 2020). Citizens can engage and confront governments using data if they have capacity and skills to understand and analyse it.
Citizen-generated data – alternative urban data production
| “Strict definitions of open data can act as a barrier to data production” (Davies et al., 2019).
Parallel to the emergence of Open Government Data, alternative forms of data production and sharing are blooming - not necessarily within city governments, but at the urban grassroots level, whereby citizens and community organisations are collecting, sharing, and benefiting from information produced in and about local areas (Ricker et al., 2020). This form does not only reduce the burden from government to collect urban data but also equips citizens with skills throughout the data lifecycle (collecting; processing; analysing; using/reuse; improving; validating, and monitoring data quality). This way citizens are empowered to effectively use data to solve their problems or confront their local authority. A good case example of citizen-generated data is Map Kibera in Nairobi – a community managed initiative that has seen a collective effort of slum dwellers from Kibera collecting and mapping data of their marginalised settlement. The Map Kibera initiative has made the settlement visible on a map through a free and open digital map identifying communal issues such as lack of water, sanitation, and security. With this evidence-based map, the citizens of Kibera have been able to lobby and approach their local authority to highlight the areas that needed services the most (Taka, 2018).
Prioritising open data portals
Overall results suggest that portals are at a very early stage of development in Africa. Studies have suggested that we need improvements in user help and analysis features, as well as inclusion of features to help citizens understand the data, such as more charting and analysis (Thorsby et al, 2016).
The Africa Data Revolution Report 2018 strongly asserted there was generally very little commitment from many African governments to publish up-to-date or additional datasets, while there is also very little evidence of use or impact of the open data which is published. Davies et al., (2019) assert, open data in Africa is seen as a secondary priority, isolated from other development agendas, such as infrastructure, education, agriculture, water, and health. Open data is not yet engrained in law in the continent, with legal frameworks supporting it either incomplete or directly absent (Iglesias, 2019). It has been suggested that African countries encounter difficulties in their capacity to implement those policies intended to make data available and accessible in a user-friendly format (PARIS21 &MIF, 2021). This would seem an important area for initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership - to which at least 15 African countries are subscribed - should lend concerted attention. Other governmental, technical, and civic actors can also augment their important roles.