Data Revolution – The Reality for African Countries

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By Aroob Syedah Iqbal |

IBM, the American multinational technology and consulting firm, reports that 2.5 quintillion (10^18) bytes of data are being generated everyday through search engines, social media check-ins, internet purchases and much more. The data being generated is at such an unprecedented rate that an estimated 90% of the data in the world today was created in the last two years alone.

While the digitised developed world is enthralled by the enormous amounts of data generated and the opportunities opened up by this data, developing countries are still grappling with a lack of complete data for development efforts. This lack of data in developing countries and the possibilities for data collection opened by digitisation has called for a ‘Data Revolution’ to be put at the forefront of the new global development agenda.

The need for a data revolution is at the heart of the international community’s conceptualization of the United Nations (UN)-led Post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Together with a global framework of indicators for monitoring progress towards the SGDs, emphasis is placed on establishing mechanisms that facilitate collection of local dis-aggregated data annually. This high quality data is expected to facilitate implementation, accounting, and tracking of the development goals at international levels.

However, this global movement towards better data can easily fail without the committed support of national governments. Following the UN call for a Data Revolution, the African Union Council of Ministers adopted the African Data Consensus in Addis Ababa in March 2015 to ‘Africanise’ and nationalise the data revolution. The Consensus recognises and emphasises the unique contextual realities of Africa.

In Uganda, a 2014 study by Development Research and Training (DRT) into the potential impact of open data to resource allocation for poverty eradication found that though there are multiple actors within the data ecosystem, they work in silos not complementing each other’s efforts. While the overarching goal for all the actors is increasing transparency of and access to available data for improved decision-making and ultimately for poverty eradication, the established and emerging open data actors were found to be “polarized, fractured, sharing different and conflicting agendas and in some cases, not even aware of one another’s existence”.

An earlier 2011 study by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) which was based on basic tenets of open data readiness (knowledge, attitudes and practice) concluded that Uganda was ready to implement Open Government Data (OGD) with appropriate support and guidance. However, there remained the need to create systems and infrastructure to converge all government data into a single location. There was also the need for a shift in attitude towards open data use and the development of appropriate regulations and standards that conform to OGD initiatives.

Accordingly, as part of the 2015 annual Civil Society (CSO) fair in Uganda, a session was convened to discuss how Ugandan stakeholders can collectively leverage experiences and contribute to the regional and international data revolution and the SDGs debate. The session, organised by DRT and moderated by CIPESA, also sought stakeholders’ input on how to operationalise the open data revolution in Uganda. For its part, DRT is leading a pilot project in two districts – Katakwi and Kitgum – to connect all stakeholders involved in data collection and development efforts in the two districts and create an open-resource toolkit on the available data. According to DRT, this collaboration between the different stakeholders is imperative to actualise the data revolution in Uganda. Other initiatives, both by government and civil society such as Know Your Budget, Ask Your Government Uganda and Open Data Uganda, among others are supporting greater openness and information access for citizens.

But Michael Niyitegeka – an independent consultant and a panelist at CSO fair session – noted how the data community in Uganda was currently focused on the generation of data, without putting in place appropriate structures for the processing, analysis and dissemination of relevant and useful data for decision-making processes. He also emphasised the importance of digital literacy for the country to realise the data revolution.

“Even though the Africa Telecom Outlook Report, 2014 estimates that 30% of the continent’s population is expected to own smartphones by 2017, the ownership of these devices does not imply the ability for citizens to engage with social media networks or information platforms to utilise data for efforts to improve their livelihoods or holding their leaders accountable,” said Mr. Niyitegeka.

In agreement, Dr. Florence Tushabe, a Lecturer at the Uganda Technology and Management University, also a panelist of the session, noted that “to be able to fully contribute to and benefit from the data revolution, Uganda will need the technical and human expertise it currently lacks to collect and then analyse the data.” She added that there is a need also to test locally, the hypothesis that data availability directly informs citizens’ decision-making processes and improves accountability as envisaged by the data revolution theory of change.

With only 10% of Uganda’s population connected to the national electricity grid and an adult literacy level of 73%, achieving the data revolution requires investment not only in data collection, but also in the capacity to demand and analyse that data by citizens. Capacity building is also required for civil society organisations to appropriately leverage data analysis for advocacy and engagement efforts for development. For the policy makers, the analysis would inform development interventions and investments.

Aroob Syedah Iqbal is an AidData Summer Fellow currently stationed at CIPESA. She is pursuing a Masters in Global Policy Studies at the University of Texas, Austin – USA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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