How Kenya is making sense of government data

Governments are known to be big generators and keepers of data, but bureaucracy in most African nations has blocked public access to and use of government-gathered information.

Several countries in Africa, however, have initiated open data policies in an effort to make government data public through Web-based tools.

Kenya's Open Data Initiative (KODI), launched in 2011, has been at the forefront of efforts to make government data accessible to the public and third-party service providers.

For example, citizens can now get information on all health facilities in Kenya, see government spending from 2005 to the present, compare HIV/AIDs reports from various years and access retail fuel price trends on the KODI website.

The open data initiative, however, still requires more users and developers who can come up with applications to use the available information and format it in a way that makes sense to the public.

The KODI site has 65,000 to 80,000 monthly views and has had more than 190,000 downloads of its 500 data sets, said Sifa Mawiyoo, a GIS (geographic information system) specialist and a curator at KODI, at a recent presentation at an open data conference in Nairobi. He added that KODI currently collaborates with 25 government ministries and agencies and hopes to work with all the counties in Kenya.

"We are also working on the open data fellows program, that allows us to embed individuals in different ministries to bring out data," Mawiyoo said.

The Ministry of Health decided in 2011 to make its data available to the KODI and to the public. The ministry implemented District Health Information Software (DHIS), a database system that is used in over 40 countries to store health information.

The Kenyan DHIS platform now boasts 22,000 users, with over half actively engaging with the data, according to Jeremiah Mumo, an official at the Ministry of Health.

Many Kenyans, however, still don't know the KODI exists. Many people in the country access information via physical documents, which can be expensive, since most have to be purchased from government printers.

The other challenge is that some government ministries do not know what to do with the information they churn out.

Often, recommendations that are derived from government data are never followed up, said Davis Adieno, the capacity development manager at Development Initiatives, a nonprofit organization.

"The challenge that we have is that, how do we use what we are getting from the government from the Kenya Open Data Initiative to engage policy makers to influence decision making" Adieno asked.

"Even after you have produced a very good report and you have quoted data from the KODI; you analyze it and make pie charts and you meet policy makers, they look at you and wonder, 'Who are you to tell us what to do' " Adieno said.

Adieno challenged the government to use data analysis to update policies for budgeting, governance and other services.

KODI will have a chance to make use of feedback as it redesigns the site: It says the open data site is being modified.

Meanwhile, the Kenya ICT Board, the government agency responsible for KODI, plans to raise the profile of the project through a campaign aimed at the public, academia, media, and entrepreneurs.

"The Open Data team is currently conducting a government-wide data survey that will ascertain the availability of datasets and readiness of the various government ministries in opening up data," the board said.

Vince Matinde

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