What's special about open data in Kenya?


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On July 8th 2011, President Mwai Kibaki launched the Kenyan Open Data Initiative, making key government data freely available to the public through a single online portal. The 2009 census, national and regional expenditure, and information on key public services are some of the first datasets to be released. Tools and applications have already been built to take this data and make it more useful than it originally was.

This is, so far, the story of open government data in many other countries; what's special about Kenya?

Firstly, as Johannes Zutt writes, this initiative arrives just as a new constitution is being adopted by the country. There's an opportunity to affirm the practice and principles of open government at a time of national change; there's a community of local developers and activists eager to make use of the data; and a genuine appetite from the public for transparency and accountability.

Secondly, our understanding and expectations of open data have matured. The oldest kid on the block, data.gov, is a little over two-years old. It's followed closely by the eighteen-month old data.gov.uk and some of the 22 other international open government data sites around the world.  In the short time these initiatives have existed, we've started to figure out what works, what doesn't and why. Kenya's open data initiative has already learned from the successes and failures of others, has connected with the global open data community and is prompting thinking beyond open data and towards open development.

Finally, Kenya is the first low-income group country to have an open government data portal. This brings into focus the supply and demands sides of government information that other countries may take for granted. Raka Banerjee writes that the call for open data should go hand in hand with a call for better quality data: data that might be collected by official government agencies or in this age, by citizens themselves.

On supply: The World Bank's indicators on country-level statistical capacity measure various aspects of a government's statistical systems. You can see from an overview of Kenya where World Bank programmes such as STATCAP add value by strengthening these national systems, improving the supply of official government data. Open government initiatives of course require more than this; and there's a team in Kenya working across ministries and departments to make open government a sustained success.

On demand: with over a hundred requests from the public for new datasets on the opendata.go.ke site, it's clear that there's a desire for more information. People want data similar to what they might want in the USA: land registry, company registrations and employment statistics to name a few. Kenyans also want data that citizens of more developed countries may be less likely to ask for: fire protection information (how many fire engines are there per county?), school payment disbursement data (do government funds actually reach schools?) and livestock populations.

Open data in Kenya is special: it comes at a time of national change; it’s got a head start on tools and expertise from the global open data community and it’s happening in a country where the information ecosystem is still maturing.

Wolfgang Fengler
August 04, 2011

Dear Tariq,

nice post! We need your continued help because the heavy lifting starts now.


Simon Kokoyo
August 04, 2011

Kenya has made a big step in sharing information. However at this moment Kenyans need information that can help its citizens make informed decisions and face reality on the ground. It is this reality that will help us as Kenyans to know which changes needs to be made and to avoid election violence in 2012. Otherwise providing information that will not help Kenyan have faith in the system will not help. Information is power. The question is, how powerful is the information on site to bring about change along with the implementation of the new constitution?

August 04, 2011

@Wolfgang - agreed; this is just the beginning for both open data in Kenya but really for open data and "digital transparency" globally. Even in the UK and USA we're still having debates about whether openness is useful or not and if the risks and costs outweigh the rewards and benefits. I'm pleased the World Bank is now playing a part in this conversation.

@Simon - an excellent point: how powerful is the information on the site? Honestly; I don't know.

I can offer analogies about the action citizens have taken with similar data in other countries but I'd point you towards the requests from the public for new datasets on the site. That's where the really interesting stuff could start. These are people motivated to tackle specific problems, where specific data (that's not currently available) is a key enabler for them.

Some of the "faith in the system" comes from a healthier dialogue between the state and citizens - the dialogue around data is an important part of that.

August 09, 2011

I agree. Information is power and information can bring change but will this information bring change? How many people are able to access this site? how are you creating awareness of the site and the info in it?

Yaw Adom-Mensah
August 28, 2011

Laudable by the Kenyan government. The community of practice should be diverse and not only wait for developers to create application algorithms based on the released data.

In the developing country context, open-data access should mean more than simply the creation of applications -the ICT dimension- but of course, you cannot rule out ict as a facilitator. Then again, the question arises as to what really is open data? Is this a mere digitization of data sets that were hitherto accessible to the public in shelves but requiring long bureaucratic process to be granted access? or are these declassified data sets? If the government has merely digitized the former, this is not open data but a mere data digitization made possible by the internet and web 2.0 tools

This brings in the question Simon raised about how powerful is the data on the site? Do we have data on for instance donor funds received against local, regional national expenditures? or just on expenditures made? If just on the later, how useful[open] is the data?

Really, the argument on open data should be treated based on the same context as the software community treats open-source. Mere online database should be separated from the real open data sets. Off course, there will always be the wide audience with varied interests when data is accessible with few or no limitations. Traditional paper/print format data sets mostly attracts academics who would venture to go through protocols to access these shelved data sets, online databases are accessible to everyone, anywhere at anytime.

Which ever way, we have to start from somewhere and this is a good beginning by Kenyan Government