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African governments are lagging behind in open data

African governments are lagging behind in open data, and are keeping data locked away as citizens demand accountability a new Open Data Barometer report has revealed. The report gives a global snapshot of how governments are using open data for accountability, innovation and social impact. The report revealed that key accountability metrics such as government spending, elections, public contracts, company ownership and land ownership are among the least open and often poor quality. The report recommends that government-held data must be open by default and follow the principles set out in the Open Data Charter.

African governments are lagging behind in open data, wasting the opportunity to engage effectively with citizens as well as earning their trust. In a new report by the World Wide Web Foundation titled “As citizens demand accountability, governments keep data locked away”, it emerged that even early open data leaders are stalling, and even backsliding in their delivery of open data.

Open data is data that is available for everyone to use and reuse, and allows citizens to hold governments to account for the decisions they take and the money they spend.

This fourth edition of the Open Data Barometer launched today is a global snapshot of how governments are using open data for accountability, innovation and social impact also revealed that key accountability metrics such as government spending, elections, public contracts, company ownership and land ownership are among the least open and often poor quality. More disturbing is the finding that government spending data — which helps people track where their taxes go — is open in just 3% of countries. The study covered 115 countries.

South Africans have been vocal in their right to know the details of the government’s controversial arms deal. (R2K campaigners opposing the Secrecy Bill outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg)

Kenya leads the pack in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of data openness, ranking 35th globally with a score of 40, 42%. It is followed by South Africa ranking at number 46 globally, Mauritius and Ghana at 59 and Tanzania at number 67. While Kenya scores high on its budget, health and environment datasets, none of these are actually open to citizens. South Africa has high scores on datasets such as elections, budget, census and trade, however these are also not openly accessible.

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In a press release, the World Wide Web indicated that the scores of high-ranking Nordic countries and the United States have fallen this year, and even the UK, a traditional open data leader, has seen worrying changes in key policies.

The report produced five key findings, encapsulated in the recommendations below: 

  • Government-held data must be open by default and follow the principles set out in the Open Data Charter.
  • All government data management practices and systems must be designed with openness in mind from the very beginning of the data management process
  • Governments should adopt and implement the Open Data Charter principles in order to have strong policy foundations.
  • Governments need to give top priority to opening up the data that will help citizens get what they really need — better public services, more transparency, and accountability.
  • Governments must invest in using open data to improve the lives of marginalised groups.

One of the key findings is the fact that one in 10 datasets studied are fully open — unchanged from last year — showing that most countries are failing to make any progress on delivering vital public information. The foundation has recommended that Government-held data must be open by default and follow the principles set out in the Open Data Charter from proactive publication to clear open licensing.

Supporters of the Right2Know campaign outside Parliament protest against SABC, August 2016. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

The second key finding is that Government data is usually incomplete, out of date, of low quality, and fragmented, this means, procedures, timelines, and responsibilities are frequently unclear. To bring more clarity on this, 79 out of the 1 1 5 governments surveyed have an open government data portal, often the most complete data is published on a source other than the official open data portal. Secondly, significant amount of reference data is published by national statistics offices (NSOs), probably because they have longstanding data management practices and thirdly, data is hard to use because there is no metadata or guidance documentation available.  The report recommends that governments review their data governance processes in full and also embed automated data publication processes in their IT systems and that data management practices and systems must be designed with openness in mind from the very beginning.

“The case for open data is clear. Citizens have a right to access the data their taxes pay for, and use it to engage in public decisions and improve their lives. Governments need to stop dragging their feet and make government data open by default.” Web Foundation Policy Director, Craig Fagan.

Thirdly, political momentum is key to introducing and scaling up open data, this importance of political decisions is demonstrated by countries such as Ukraine, Argentina, the Philippines, Burkina Faso, and Tanzania all of which experienced big improvements in Barometer scores and rankings in this fourth edition. The fourth finding is on how governments are not publishing the data needed to restore citizens’ trust. Top priority should therefore be given  to opening up the data that will help citizens get what they really need — better public services, more transparency, and accountability through working with data intermediaries — such as civil society, community organisations and the media.

Reliable Internet enables entrepreneurs to be more innovative and enhances growth at workplace, easy movement of goods and services and faster service delivery. Photo: CSquared.com

Lastly the research found that few open data initiatives actively promote inclusion and equality. Groups with lower income and/or less political power tend to be excluded from consultation and decision-making processes around open data, frequently lack internet connectivity and the skills to access open data, and may also be less visible in the data in itself. 

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Therefore governments should invest in greater disaggregation of data by sex, income level, or age, and develop new indicators that allow better analysis of diversity and stratification in our societies. There is need to consult marginalised groups when designing new data collection. Governments need to prioritise investment in low-cost and accessible internet access for marginalised groups as costly and scarce internet access puts women, low-income and other marginalised groups at a huge disadvantage when it comes to data use. Consultations in designing data collection should be augmented by investment in processes that enable marginalised groups to use the data, particularly to participate in policymaking, and with the explicit aim of achieving social policy goals.

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