State goes hi-tech with launch of online data


Internet users surf the Web at a cybercafe in Nairobi. Open Government Data Portal will for the first time make state information available to the public. File

Technology giants are scrambling to help Kenya digitise its processes to increase access to public information entrenched in the new Constitution.

Internet giant Google has just unveiled an online access of more than 2,000 copies of the Hansard, a collection of parliamentary debates that date back to the past four decades, weeks after it did the same with the Kenya Gazette.

Another US tech giant, IBM has also announced that it is partnering with the government to propose a framework to support the development of an electronic voter masterplan, months after its delegation volunteered to boost operations of the Postal Corporation of Kenya, in what is emerging as a departure of the tech firms eying to grow their presence in the country from their heavy reliance on the private sector.

“Our consultants will review the experience of the recent electronic voter registration pilot and compare this with global e-voter frameworks and evolving standards,” said Mr Anthony Mwai, the country general manager at IBM East Africa.

The government will today deepen its efforts to create a more transparent executive when President Kibaki presides over the launch of a new Open Government Data Portal, which will for the first time make several large government data sets available to researchers and the general public.

The data will be available online in a flexible, user-friendly platform that will allow users to view different data including the national census data at national, province, and county levels, compare different data sets, create maps and other graphics, and directly download data for their own use.

But it is the MPs that stand to see more pressure from the public with the launch of the online access to parliamentary debates, which will also serve as a reference resource for judicial officers.

The Hansards will enable Kenyans to tell if their MP was present in parliament at whatever time, his or her contribution on the days debate their voting patterns at the click of a button.

Until Thursday, they were only available to the public in hard copy at a fee after a visit to the Kenya National Assembly’s library or the Kenya National Archives.   One also needed to have prior knowledge of the year and month in which that issue was discussed and the edition of the Hansard in which it was recorded.

“The records are also a rich research resource, providing insight into, for example, how an issue like majimbo has been addressed through time, or to verify a particular MP’s position on an issue,” said Denis Gikunda, Google localisation manager for Africa. Hansard reports are also frequently produced in evidence in civil and criminal proceedings.

The system, which allows Internet users to search and cross reference the proceedings is also expected to reduce cases of collusion by MPs to pass certain Bills in parliament since the public can easily monitor their actions. It will also be crucial under the new Constitution that provides for several elected officials including Senators and Governors, which will make it difficult for the public to monitor the performance of their elected officials.

The initiative, spearheaded by the National Council for Law Reporting, that is tasked with providing legal information to the public together with Google and the Kenya ICT Board, will also allow judicial officers easy access to accurate and timely information to enhance their arguments and ruling.

“It represents a fulfillment of the citizen’s right to access public information, a right introduced by the new Constitution. This right places an obligation on the Government to provide public information in a time and form that is reliable and accessible to the citizen,” said deputy Chief Justice Nancy Baraza. “Judicial officers will also be in a better position to understand the spirit and context within which an enactment of a particular law by parliament was done, and this is expected to translate into better interpretation of the laws,” she said.

This will be a shot in the arm for civil society groups monitoring parliamentary debate at a time when MPs are under increasing pressure to deliver on their promises, coming after the introduction of live television broadcasts. Players in the sector reckon that technology is best suited to support its reforms initiatives in the Judiciary system such as enhancing accessibility, transparency and effectiveness.

Legal framework

“Kenyans want a judicial system where a case can be filed in the morning, the hearing completed in the afternoon and a ruling done in the evening,” said the deputy CJ. “This challenge is not insurmountable with technology.”

The Judiciary, which has already set up a teleconference facility linking Nairobi and Mombasa law courts is calling on parliament to fast track a legal framework to support these initiatives.

“The case of lost files will be a thing of the past when we fully have all our records in an electronic format,” said Justice Philip Waki, a court of appeal judge and the Chairman of the Judiciary ICT committee. “We are also considering the recommendations from the ICT board to set up a case management system, an audio visual and transcription system among others.”

Additional reporting by Kui Kinyanjui