There used to be a time when data was something only academics and statisticians had to worry about. But in recent times, there has been an increased prioritisation of data across all sectors. Data refers to raw facts that need to be processed and organised to provide something useful. In fact, “Open data” is the new buzzword flying around many circles; governance, private sector, media and civil society.
What is Open data? Open data simply refers to data that can be “reused and redistributed by anyone - subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike” (Fernando, 2017). It is hinged on the idea that the more “open” the data, the closer we are to achieving greater transparency and accountability in governance. It is also important in building effective and sustainable institutions.
On a global scale, the era of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) informed the launch of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and the International Open Data Charter. In Africa, there is also burgeoning commitment among some countries to make data more open and accessible. For example, eleven African countries (six from West Africa) signed the Open Government Declaration.
In 2014, the African Data Consensus was initiated by African Heads of State as a response to the need for a “sustained data revolution” in driving a much-needed social and economic transformation within the continent. There has also been a rise in the number of initiatives like CodeForAfrica, CodeforNigeria and CodeforGhana which seek to empower active citizenship to foster responsible governance.
The state of open data in Africa: progress or decline?
African countries generally rank poorly on the Open Data Barometer (ODB). In West Africa, no country is ranked in the top 50. Kenya is the only country from Sub-Saharan Africa to be among the top 40.
The challenge for many civil society organisations (CSOs) in West Africa is hardly the absence of data, but for CSOs to make the data available and accessible to its stakeholders. Most data generated by CSOs is not open. For example, WACSI operates an online directory for promoting and connecting CSOs within West Africa. However, the number of CSOs registered on, updating and utilizing information on the website is significantly low compared to those working across the region.
Other challenges range from low level of technical know-how, to lack of adequate infrastructure such as electricity and internet, to weak language translation expertise, to political and legal restrictions. Therefore, they end up with loads of data that are not fully curated, analysed and shared due to limited capacity.
The idea of having data that is “open” may seem contradictory and counterintuitive. Perhaps, there are two questions we need to answer. First, how relevant could open data possibly be for CSOs and the social sector? Second, are CSOs in West Africa doing enough to make data open?
Relevance of open data to CSOs
Let me state that I am aware of the skepticism about “getting all this data” when there are still many systemic issues that need to be addressed before “sharing data” can become a reality for CSOs in West Africa. There is equally a limited understanding about the strategic value of open data for CSOs within the region.
The West Africa CSO directory is one way you can make data about your organisation open and accessible. These are some of the potential benefits of open data:
Challenges associated with making data open
Open data may be gaining momentum globally, but many within the data space agree that there are still several barriers to be addressed.
Socio-Political Context: In knowing why an organisation shares enough data or not, a glance at the political landscape could provide a better perspective. According to ODB, Ghana currently leads in the subregion for open data, ranking 59 (out of 115 countries), followed by Burkina Faso and Nigeria ranking 67 and 70 respectively. Most of the countries are reported to lack fully open data sets. This makes one ask the question “how open is open?” For example, the health and education datasets in Nigeria now have restrictions of use for certain purposes. In terms of readiness and implementation for open data, most West African countries clearly exhibit a lack of political will especially in terms of right to information. This is also conflated by a heavy reliance on third parties for funding and sustaining open data initiatives.
Methodological framework: Another major barrier to increased data sharing and usage are problems related to making “evidence-based” decisions without adequate information on the methodology that informs the data collection process.
Who determines what was included and what was left in this dataset? Whose interests are being protected through this data?
Privacy: This brings me to the point about privacy. Whose data is it? How is it used?
This is perhaps one very controversial issue depending on how one wants to look at it. Without standard privacy and consent frameworks, open data could encourage the use of data in unethical ways and might lead to unintended consequences.
Demand Vs Supply: If privacy triggers questions surrounding ownership and usage of data, it’s only logical to know the demand and supply drivers of open data. The 2015 International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) report suggests that there is not enough incentive for CSOs to publish and share quality data “because no one is using their data”. The low demand for open data is reportedly due to its inadequacy in certain contexts.  Hence, the challenge is not just in increasing open data but ensuring there is enough use of it to drive development outcomes.
Paving a way forward
In a region where some still struggle to capture the most basic forms of data, it is hardly a question of whether CSOs are simply sharing data or not. It’s a bit more complicated. It’s an awkward mix of capacity, politics, quality, infrastructure, sustainability amongst others.
Many CSOs are already using data in one way or the other, although only a few have the capacity to use this data in innovative ways.
One way to bridge this gap is by improving the data literacy of CSOs through workshops that would expose them to the value of open data, help them identify relevant data sources within their fields and boost their confidence in using data.
Furthermore, “global” players within the open data community should seek ways to collaborate with local actors in creating richer data sets that reflect local needs and foster grassroots adoption.
Academics and practitioners also need to get past the chasm between their approach in order for data to inform practice and vice versa.
CSOs and government should also see open data as a common ground for them to work together - relying on facts rather than opinion.
Furthermore, governments need to improve commitment towards open data with stronger privacy laws, freedom of information legislation and the right to access data. This way, open data interventions are not just window-dressed, but truly satisfy the full criteria.
Finally, CSOs should exhibit responsible generation, ownership and control of data by committing to privacy and consent practices.