More African governments are enacting open data policies but still aren’t willing to share information

When your bark becomes weaker than your byte.
When your bark becomes weaker than your byte.
Image: Reuters/Sigtryggur Ari
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Working as a data journalist and researcher in Uganda, Lydia Namubiru does not remember a moment she had an easy time accessing official government data in the execution of her work. She has had to literally beg for such information from officials with little success.

In June this year, she approached the Uganda Bureau of Statistics seeking a nationally representative sample of micro data from the country’s 2014 census. Despite frequent calls and emails, she is still waiting for the information from the bureau several months down the line.

“Government agencies simply don’t respond to these requests”, says Namubiru. “The law says you can sue non-responsive agencies, but it’s such a fast-paced world already, I don’t see any working journalist or activist really having time for that.”

It doesn’t have to be that way of course.  In neighboring Kenya there’s much optimism there’ll be a different attitude to open data. Last month civil society activists and supporters of open data celebrated the government signing the Access to Information bill into law. It comes after many years of lobbying.

“This is really a massive achievement and it puts us in good standing in terms of citizen engagement with government and that will obviously improve processes of governance which include service delivery,” Maureen Kariuki, regional civil society coordinator for Africa and the Middle East at Open Government Partnership.

Despite well-earned reputations of authoritarianism and conservative attitudes to governance, it turns out more African governments are opening up to their citizens in the guise of espousing transparency and accountability in the conduct of their affairs.

However, in truth, a government saying it’s allowing citizens to access data or information is very different from the actual practice of enabling that access. For the most part, several governments’ open data initiatives often serve far more mundane purposes and may not be the data that citizens really want—the kind that potentially exposes corruption or laxity in public service.

Like in Kenya, when Uganda enacted the Access to Information law in 2005, advocates of open government were happy to have something that would finally support their quest for official government data to enable them evaluate delivery of services to the public. More than 10 years later, the public still has a hard time accessing official data especially anything that touches on public expenditure and government tender awards to enable them demand transparency and accountability. Now, even requesting or demanding such information has become as dangerous a business as exposing government corruption.

No data champions

The 2015 Open Data Barometer (ODB) released in April this year had little to celebrate as far as implementing open data initiatives across Africa goes. Countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Mauritius and Nigeria were the top five in terms of openness. However, there is no clear open data champion on the continent to truly demonstrate clear leadership in open government.

The findings of that 2015 report show that no sub-Saharan African country featured in the top 40 of the countries at the forefront in the use of open data. Six of the countries in the bottom 10 of the 92 countries that were assessed are on the continent. This actually means that these African countries are missing out on the benefits that come with governments that are truly open with official data. On a global scale, the UK and the US have demonstrated clear leadership in having open government.

“Countries that have embraced open data have seen real savings in public spending and improved efficiency in services. Nowhere is this more vital than in our nations – many of which face severe health and education crises,” Nnenna Nwakanma, Africa regional coordinator at World Wide Web Foundation, points out.

What is more prevalent now is what some open data advocates call ‘open washing’, which is described as  a real threat to the open data movement according to the World Wide Web Foundation. By ‘open washing’, governments merely enact open data policies but do not follow through to full implementation. Others simply put in place strong freedom of information and right to information laws but do not really let the citizens take full advantage of the open data. This could, however, be as a result of institutional shortcomings, internal bureaucracies or lack of political will.

As the initiatives towards open data gather steam, challenges such as government agencies being unwilling to release official information as well as state bureaucracies are still prominent. Many governments are also only keen on releasing information that will not portray them as ‘naked’ but that which they feel will project them in positive light. But, as to whether laws will make governments more open, even with the information that citizens really need, is a matter of conjecture. For Namubiru, open data should be a culture that grows more subtly than by way of just passing laws for the sake of it.

“If they release enough packets of data on what they consider neutral or positive information, the storytellers will still be able to connect the dots.”