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Making Open Data Work for Citizens: Four Lessons from Code4Kenya

Christopher Finch's picture

Eighteen months ago we watched President Kibaki launch the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) to broad acclaim and fanfare.  All our initial expectations were very high. Some expected that Kenya’s vibrant ICT community would rapidly embrace open data, that there would be a rapid outpouring of open data sets from government agencies, and that open data would drive more informed development decision making.

However, although Kenya has a strong ICT sector, skilled development professionals, high cell phone penetration, a relatively open media and active CSOs, open data uptake has not been as rapid as some  expected. Traffic to Kenya’s open data portal has been consistent, with the Government’s portal generating around 100,000 page views a month, mostly from Kenya. The number of datasets on the portal has doubled from the initial 200 to more than 400 today, but still represents a tiny fraction of the data in Kenya.

So even in a country like Kenya with a dynamic ICT sector, simply making data available is only one step in a longer process.

What can be done to stimulate the demand-side to accelerate uptake and creation of open data-driven development solutions? How can citizen feedback be improved, sustained and scaled to impact on development outcomes? Short term solutions such as hackathons create some momentum but are difficult to sustain.  I think some answers may lie in an alternative approach – Code4Kenya—just launched in Kenya and supported by the Bank’s Innovation Fund and the Governance Partnership Facility (GPF).

Designed and implemented by the African Media Initiative and Open Institute, Code4Kenya is one of the first sustained attempts in Africa focused on making open data relevant to and used by citizens.

Fellows are recruited on a competitive basis from Kenya’s vibrant technology and civil societies.  They are then “embedded” in media and civil society organizations, who agreed to host a Fellow for a period of 5 months to help them make use of data and technology.  During this period, the Fellows and a team of supporting technologists help each organization develop applications, to build data desks, strengthen staff capacity to use data and related analysis in their reporting and core work.

Some immediate results include the Star media group’s new health portal that citizens can use to check the credentials of health professionals, and find which hospitals provide which special services. Using exam and school location data, the CSO Twaweza has developed aneducation application “Find My School” that citizens can use to check relative performance of primary schools in the country. The Kenya Nation Media group has developed an election mapping platform that enables the public to look at look at patterns of voting, as well as some development indicators, across Kenya’s constituencies in past elections.

So while it is too early to call Code4Kenya a major success, here are some of my takeaways from this innovative attempt to expand demand for open data?

1. New models are needed to increase sustainability.   Rather than bringing staff or technologists OUT of host organizations, the Code4Kenya program selects ICT-savvy fellows and embeds them IN host organizations, to help them make use of open data and technology in ways that suit their needs.  And that have resources and incentives to sustain and scale the applications and uses of data introduced with help from the fellows.

2. Open data is not just government data—it can come from many sources.Several host organizations have begun to set up their own data desks, to convert and re-organize hard copy data into digital, downloadable formats that can inform and deepen their reporting and analysis.  This has also prompted hosts to make some of their own data available for public dissemination.

3. Partnerships with media and infomediaries can help make open data benefit citizens.  Translating data into action requires many steps, with “info-mediaries” playing a key role – to analyze and turn data into visualizations and applications that citizens use and want. Working with media can amplify the work that technologists are doing to empower citizens, while also strengthening the media’s own ability to embrace the fast changing ways that citizens access and use information.  Partnership with Kenya’s iHub, whose network of technologists and innovators provided the pool of applicants for the fellows program, and introduced fellows to demand-driven design thinking, was also important.  iHub is also documenting the Kenya open data outreach and lessons learned.

4. Making open data work depends on culture change.  And this takes time and a lot of work. The quality and scale of each application is not the main measure of whether the Code4Kenya program has been successful. The real measure is how much the fellows program has helped each organization make better use of data and technology in its reporting or core work, to reach larger groups of citizens.  The fellows and their host organizations are modest when they describe the five-month process, but it was a huge amount of work--countless meetings, requests, back-and-forths, between fellows, editors, technologists, and data holders to get as far as they have.

The best news is the African Media Initiative and others want to continue and expand the Code4Kenya experience in Kenya and beyond. Continued success will depend on how the host organizations further embed open data and technology in their operations, and, even more importantly, how the applications and stories they have created have broader impact.

And Kenya’s experience will also be showcased to the wider development community at an international conference on citizen engagement organized by the World Bank, CIVICUS and InterAction in Washington D.C. on March 18 – for more information:http://wbi.worldbank.org/wbi/event/citizen-voices

But in the meantime, I want to congratulate our partner organizations, the fellows, and the host organizations on the progress they have made, and look forward to seeing the next steps as the seeds they have planted grow.

THANKS to those who made it possible: 
Design and Management: The African Media Initiative, The Open Institute
Host organizations include: The Standard, The Nation, Star media houses and the CSO Twaweza
Supporters: Code4Kenya fellows and developers 
Partner organizations:  iHub and @iLab Strathmore

Special Thanks to PS Ndemo, the Ministry of ICT, the ICT Board, and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics and other government agencies that have made Kenya’s open data initiative possible.  The fellow program also builds on past support from the World Bank Institute’ media and innovation programs, and also the WB’s own open data initiative.

Learn more about citizen engagement initiatives at an upcoming event.

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