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Columnists

Let’s use open data to empower citizens

Those who had the opportunity to watch James Bond movies could wonder how he predicted future events and dealt with them applicably.

In today’s world, you can do the same if you had a lot of information in your hands. Information is increasingly coming from sets of data we have but we have no idea they contain information.

Futuristic organisations are gathering data around their customers. This will help them understand the customer better.

In some cases, they may go too far to the extent of infringing on individual rights. This is why the Bills on freedom of information and data protection that are in Parliament are of great significance.

The balance between what needs to be open and what needs to be protected is important. Public data such as public spending, information with respect to extractive industries and public services delivery should be in the open.

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Open data presupposes transparency but it also has other more important uses like individuals analysing it for their own benefit. For example, census data is useful to deepen our understanding on not just poverty patterns but consumer needs that leads to an opportunity for a private enterprise to exploit.

Mechanisms for accessing data from private institutions like hospitals should be normalised because it will help protect consumers while the same data can be anonymised and used for critical research.

It is important for a patient to know for example the number of failed or successful surgeries done by the hospital or specific doctors to enable the patient make a decision. If for example, there is only one survivor out of the 50 surgeries in the hospital, then I need to know.

Some private institutions like mobile network operators and supermarkets have data that can be used to build future predictions. For example, combined data from the two institutions can give a better prediction on inflation than any other data source.

In most countries, open data is empowering citizens. In Liberia, information with respect to student teacher ratio in every school and county is in the open data.

This data is significant because the public can ask the right questions. For example, if a county performed poorly, the first thing you look at is the student teacher ratio, then you move into comparing teacher backgrounds (if they had training or not) and teacher commitment to teaching.

In Kenya, we prefer opinion over hard facts. Opinions precipitate perceptions of marginalisation. This is what put us in the 2007/2008 imbroglio.

Kenya was among the first countries to develop open data portal. We had hoped that open data from metrological and agricultural research institutions will help us predict rainfall patterns as well as productivity of soil types.

Our mentality did not change. We want the metrological department to tell us the predictions. In modern data analytics, a single source of truth no longer works.

Different data sources are analysed together to provide clearer information and presented in a way that anybody can understand. Our public institutions still work in 19th century silo formats that undermine today’s dynamic interactions.

Knowledge is no longer the preserve of a few. Different people look at information differently and this where innovation comes from.

Within the first month of open data in Kenya, more than 50 mobile applications had been developed leveraging on the data. The absence of continuous update of the portal meant that it was no longer useful to young innovators.

In a country where unemployment is more than 40 per cent, this is criminal. There is no justification of hiding data on maternal health which innovators want to develop apps for mothers.

At a later date, the same information becomes open data at the World Bank. In the end we miss creating job opportunities while at the same time we continue to rank poorly not just on the global maternal health index but on transparency index too.

In a study analysing International Monetary Fund Data, Rachel Glennerster and Yongseok Shin found out that transparency – measured by accuracy and frequency of macroeconomic information released to the public – leads to lower borrowing costs in sovereign bond markets.

Open data pays off in many ways, in many different contexts. It is in our interest to build a culture of openness where we can create jobs, improve on productivity as well as our image on the global stage.

As Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategyLabs in Citizen Power – Leading Connected Societies said: “There’s nothing to be scared of in open data. Unless you’re taking money where you shouldn’t be taking money.”

The writer is a Senior Lecturer, University of Nairobi and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.

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