This week, the Open Government Partnership will hold a regional meeting in Cape Town, and open data on the African continent will be in the spotlight. There will be the usual speeches about catalytic potential, statements of support, and a few isolated examples of progress. But I think I speak for many when I say that I’m impatient at the rate of change.
In late April, the World Wide Web Foundation released the third edition of the Open Data Barometer – a 92-country study which ranks nations based on the readiness, implementation and impact of open data. For Africa, the Barometer offered little to celebrate. Kenya – in 42nd place, rising seven places from last year – is the highest ranked Sub-Saharan African state. Six of the bottom ten countries are African. And while it is clearly unfair to make direct comparisons to rich nations, a worrying sign is that 15 African countries dropped in position or remained static since last year. It’s time to look in the mirror and ask some hard questions. Are we in fact stalling or going backwards? Are we afraid of opening up data that rightly belongs to citizens?
It’s not all bad news – there have been many steps in the right direction. Last year, dozens of African data communities endorsed the Africa Data Consensus, which states that ‘Official data belong to the people and should be open to all. They should be open by default.’ Following this, the first African Open Data Conference took place, bringing hundreds of engaged advocates together to discuss paths to progress. Civil society is increasingly engaging with open data, through data communities and initiatives such as the openAfrica platform.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg and I, for one, am tired of waiting for open data to deliver real benefits to everyday people across my continent. African citizens deserve to have access to government data: to allow them to expose corruption and wrongdoing, to build businesses and to strengthen service delivery across the continent. Governments too have much to gain by opening up data – and doing it now. Countries that have embraced open data have seen real savings in public spending and improved efficiency in services. Nowhere is this more vital than in our nations – many of which face severe health and education crises.
So how do we realise these benefits, fast? A good start would be for African nations to put their commitment to open data beyond doubt by adopting the international Open Data Charter. The Charter’s six principles provide a clear framework for governments to work within, and the Charter’s forthcoming sector packages – on anti-corruption and climate change – will provide practical tools to tackle two of our continent’s most pressing problems. No African country has yet adopted the Open Data Charter, and we should not allow this to persist for much longer. Continental leaders like Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda and South Africa must step up to the plate.
We must also be honest – unlocking these benefits will not happen easily. As well as adopting the Charter, sustained investment – of time and of money – is required. It is not enough to have a small allocation within one department for a portal or hackathon. Governments must commit resources across the board, and donors need to come to the party too. Perhaps most importantly, bold leadership is required to turn this vision into reality.
Today, the groundwork has been laid across the continent. The challenges of turning potential into impact are clear, but so are the potential benefits – for citizens, governments and businesses alike. Let’s use this meeting of minds in Cape Town to go beyond talk and take action on open data – for the benefit of Africa and all her people.