In July 2011, Kenya became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to launch an Open Data portal for the first time giving citizens public and free access to key information that anchors policy-making.
The Open Data portal was expected to provide openness and engagement on government spending and eventually help fight corruption.
The portal was to house spending information from all ministries; from spending on tea to healthcare.
The portal was also to provide policy makers and government officials the feedback necessary to improve service delivery and was officially opened by former president Mwai Kibaki as a sign of the government’s commitment.
Crucial data, such as census figures and regional economic activity, was made available to academics, researchers, investors and policy makers to critique with the feedback generated going into amending or formulating new policies.
“Kenya’s current Constitution provides a new impetus for improving public access to government data through its emphasis on government data guarantee,” said the concept note explaining the rationale behind the Kenya Open Data portal.
The ICT Authority further argued that the government’s databases are fragmented among different ministries and agencies and in most cases inaccessible to policymakers, researchers, the private sector, or citizens.
“With an Open Data portal, planning and decisions under the current Constitution will be better informed. Data will be particularly important for informing the major decisions being taken in reference to Kenya’s very ambitious decentralisation under the Constitution,” said the ICTA in the concept note in part.
Established companies that had struggled in getting updated public data thought that this was only the beginning of massive collaboration while tech startups thought they would now build applications and products that would allow the public to access this information easily. It was seen as a way to build jobs and the economy.
Seven years after the colourful launch of the multi-million shilling project, however, the government has little to celebrate about in terms of transforming public service delivery with open data.
Despite the number of Internet users in Kenya having increased exponentially in the past decade and growing awareness of big data and data analytics in both the private and public sectors, adoption of the Kenyan Open Data portal remains dismally low.
Part of the low uptake is attributed to the fact that availability of information, especially on government spending, allows the public to bring the fight on corruption closer home.
For instance, if a ministry is spending Sh500 million on teas and conferences, and Sh300 million on its core services, then there is something wrong, and people begin to ask vital questions.
Money questions aside, the portal would have allowed the private sector to patch up any missing information, that would have aided in decision making.
For instance, in the last ten years, many tech startups have pitched social applications in the numerous competitions organised by both private sector and ICTA.
The winning startups usually have very innovative ideas on how to sort out social issues, but the startups die a slow death, when they realise how hard it is to access government information; whether private or public.
For instance, startups interested in health information, even on basic things like the number of health centers or number of nurses in each health centre, find it hard to get the data.
Last month an acquaintance working on an academic paper reached out and asked help in tracking down a study by the Ministry of Education on the causes of school unrest.
Although extensively quoted in news reports, the report was nowhere to be found online and government contacts could not share even a scanned copy.
The result of this culture of secrecy has been the duplication of resources and spending across the government, which means taxpayers pay more for the same or poorer services.
Despite the setting up the eCitizen portal to receive and process payments for public services for example, long queues remain the norm at Huduma Centres.
KEY STATE AGENCIES
At the same time, key state agencies like the Kenya Revenue Authority, KRA and Higher Education Loans Board, HELB that serve thousands of citizens each day still remain outside eCitizen, often forcing Kenyans to troop to these offices physically for services.
Across the health sector, agriculture, financial payments and industrial production, big data and data analytics have already been proved invaluable in optimising operations for the private sector.
Telecommunication service providers today use population data and heat maps to deploy network infrastructure more accurately and at the most optimum scale. This cuts on capital spending that often takes a huge chunk of service providers’ budgets.
In manufacturing and agriculture, data analytics of supply and demand patterns is helping cut on wasteful production and re-distribute scarce resources.
And in finance, fintechs have used such granular data from mobile subscriber like their mobile prefix to create a credit history.
For many companies that have been unable to access government data sets, they have opted to collect data and develop their own database.
For instance, companies working in agriculture are now developing a database of farmers with their profiles, but this information is probably somewhere in a sub county agricultural office. Health related companies are developing data, which could be available, only that it is not shared.
Education is the next frontier; as companies explore ways to provide more value to students and teachers.
The ministry of education has a lot of research and papers done that can inform companies working in education, how can this information be shared?
The open data project was supposed to allow access to this kind of information and allow more businesses to grow, but the fear of exposure of corruption and other irregularities derailed it.
If the fight and talk about corruption is any serious, then the Open Data portal should be salvaged.
Rebecca Wanjiku- CEO Fireside Group