Monday, 10 September 2012
Embrace open data for development
If one wanted information from a certain ministry in Uganda, the process would involve paying a physical visit to the ministry offices and asking a head of department for certain information. He or she would tell you to write to the Permanent Secretary (PS) who is the accounting officer and also the ‘custodian of all information’ in the ministry.
You will then go and write a letter addressed to the PS, which will arrive in the “registry”, an office which exists at almost all government ministries and agencies and whose role is to handle correspondence. (If the ministry is housed in a multi storey building, as is the case for most of them, the registry is at the ground floor in most cases).
The letter will spend perhaps a month or two (waiting for other mail perhaps) before it can begin its maiden voyage upstairs to the PS’ office, which is perhaps at the 10th floor.
That journey may take another month, as support and clerical staff figure out which relevant office it would otherwise have been addressed to. If the person seeking information is lucky, the letter will finally reach the attention of someone in the PS’ office, where a response will then be prepared. This may take another month!
Getting information from civil society organisations is not any easier either. If it is an international NGO, they will tell you that you need to ask for the information from the headquarters of the organisation, which will then authorise this country office to release the information to you. Similarly, if you walked into an NGO office upcountry and you request for certain information, say a report, you will be referred to that NGO’s Kampala office. All this wastes time and money.
Yet this entire problem could be avoided if all the stakeholders involved embraced open data, a new phenomenon that is increasingly becoming the new normal in development. Open data, or open development, as some are calling it, in a more comprehensive sense, is where organisations are using Information technologies to provide and share information using simple computer applications.
Actually, there is no specific definition for Open Development, other than the fact that the idea represents a new vision about development, how it comes about and the role that different stakeholders can play. It is about people having the information and resources that they need to hold duty-bearers to account and to make well-informed decisions to improve their lives.
Open data enhances transparency and accountability about resources that are available to be invested in development, how those resources are invested and what results they achieve. But besides juts resource information, other data on several aspects of human development, like crime reports, weather, roads availability, traffic, examinations, health, etc can be shared as well
For example, Kenya Open Data initiative, a government led platform for providing information, dumps various troves of information on district/county poverty status, school performances, budgets, etc on a website and these data are just a click away!
Luckily, even in Uganda, the Open data idea is not entirely without precedence. UNICEF had a wonderful tool known as Devtrac, where information on health centres, water (like boreholes) and schools upcountry can be got an interactive website
Most government ministries and agencies also have websites, only that these are rarely updated and have only very little information. Ministries like finance which does better also upload heavy documents, which are not user friendly.
Fortunately, the Government realised the need for making the most use of ICTs by establishing the Ministry of ICT and the National IT authority, the ICTs regulatory body. They have already launched the e-governance master plan, which is a grand step in the right direction.
One of the new ministers, Frank Tumwebaze, whose docket is the Presidency, in an interview with the New Vision reportedly said one of his immediate plans is to “link the presidency to ordinary citizens”. Using ICTs by embracing Open Data would be a good way to start.
Bernard Sabiti is a Governance Analyst at Development Research and Training (DRT).