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Invest in intelligent software to curb data abuse

Ever since their invention almost a century ago, computers have generally observed human directives without fail. Not anymore. They are getting better and better at making their own mind. Soon, they may question our logic.

The culture of abusing computer systems then blaming them for all manner of ills is about to end. That is if we embrace intelligent systems.

Intelligent systems are machines with embedded, Internet-connected computers that have the capacity to gather and analyse data and communicate with other systems.

These systems have the ability to adapt according to current data and the capacity for remote monitoring and management.

The banking sector, for example, cannot operate their branch networks without the ability of systems talking to each other on real-time basis.

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So when the Kenya Government implemented an electronic Project Monitoring Information System (eProMIS) as a platform for monitoring the performance and implementation of development projects and programmes, there was hope that, finally, the systems would improve on efficiency without fail.

The system was supposed to fully automate the collection, reporting, and analysis of data for over 2000 projects across the country. That has not happened, at least going by a recent World Bank review.

The uptake across the line ministries has been slow. A review of the e-ProMIS data indicates data quality challenges.

The largest project in e-ProMIS at the time of writing the report in February 2016 was listed as the Northern Corridor Transport Improvement Project (NCTIP) – a World Bank financed project – with a total project cost of $5.6 billion (Sh560 billion).

However, World Bank records indicate that the total project cost is closer to US$ 473 million (i.e. 12 times smaller). Such anomalies should not happen when there are technologies to detect such and raise a distress signal.

Furthermore, the review indicates that the Standard Gauge Railway project is recorded in e-ProMIS as having a total lifetime project cost of Sh6.65 billion making it the 71st largest project by total cost, which is only six per cent of the total budget allocation recorded for only one year of project implementation in the 2015/16 development estimates of Sh118 billion.

In addition, of the 1,818 projects that are listed as ‘ongoing’, the review says only about 400 (22 per cent) have ‘planned’ or ‘actual’ end dates that were in the future at time of writing, suggesting that the majority of the data is stale and needs to be updated.

These data quality issues raise questions about the usefulness of undertaking detailed analysis of the e-ProMIS data and about the quality assurance systems in place to detect and correct errors.

This is unacceptable at a time when the information and communications technologies (ICT) systems have become intelligent, the government has both sufficient bandwidth and connectivity to link virtually all counties in the country to a public cloud storage and invest in intelligent software to detect some of the obvious data abuses, not to mention a highly educated and computer literate staff.

The continued investment in stand-alone systems is expensive and unnecessary. There is need to consolidate public sector servers into one giant public cloud that would result in proper utilisation of multiple, under-utilised servers, take up more space and consume more resources than can be justified by their workload.

Consolidation would be cost effective even with multiple redundancies. Unless such a strategy is put in place, county governments would begin to invest in substandard systems that would complicate data quality even worse.

Kenya is not lacking human resource capacity. Hundreds of ICT graduates are languishing at home without employment yet the government is losing enormous resources to poor systems management.

The resource can be turned into a formidable force that will change the country’s governance narrative. Doing so means that Kenya would create intellectual property that other countries will find useful to develop next generation government.

It is an opportunity for Kenya to start export of highly trained young people and expand employment.

Further, some of these young people would end up in knowledge processing outsourcing and compete with other developing nations.

Kenya’s ICT sector is well understood and many refer to Kenya as a regional hub, but this narrative is hurt by the fact that we fail in small matters like leveraging modern intelligent systems to monitor and evaluate government spending.

e-ProMIS was meant to serve as a reliable source of data, but that has not happened. This is largely due to underutilisation of public resources.

To optimally utilise all ICT resources, there is need to consolidate public sector expenditure on systems, human resource and software to create a modern reliable public cloud with machine learning algorithms that are smart enough to monitor and evaluate public investments.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.

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