The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Nnenna Nwakanma, Africa Regional Coordinator for the World Wide Web Foundation. Nwakanma discussed the growth of open data in Africa, as well as the importance of open source software in African countries.
Alex Kostura: You have been a proponent of the open data movement across Africa. How have you seen open data drive civic engagement in African countries?
Nnenna Nwakanma: The movement is still in its early days in our region. To drive citizen participation we need three things: governments to provide open data, intermediaries like civil society or the media to use this data, and citizens to feel empowered to use it to engage with government.
Right now, the community of civil society, media, and academia using open data is still growing in Africa. Governments are still not sharing enough open data. And while more and more freedom of information laws are being passed, citizen inquiries are not always responded to in practice. We don’t have clear open data champions.
But I’m hopeful this will change because in spite of the challenges a number of excellent projects have shown us what’s possible. For example, the Africa Data Consensus, the Africa Open Data Conference, and the growing network of open street mapping across the continent.
Kostura: Which governments would you say are doing this well? Can other countries replicate these successes based on best practices, or are there other systemic challenges holding them back?
Nwakanma: The Web Foundation regularly assesses the open data programmes of over 90 countries in our Open Data Barometer. In the latest edition, the highest ranking sub-Saharan African country we surveyed was Kenya at rank 42 with a score of 29.87 out of 100. Across the sub-Saharan region, we only found two truly open datasets in our sample—in health and education in Nigeria. No African country has yet signed the Open Data Charter, which outlines six principles for best practice.
So while we have seen increasing interest and activity in open data across the continent, we are still waiting for an open data champion to emerge. In my opinion, some likely candidates could be Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Côte d’Ivoire, but we need to see them pick up the mantle and truly lead the region forward.
Kostura: The Web Foundation recently co-organized TechMousso, a competition to improve how Cote d’Ivoire collects and uses gender data—government data disaggregated by sex or specifically pertaining to women’s issues, such as maternal health. Why is accurate and timely gender data important for addressing women’s issues and for promoting economic growth in general?
Nwakanma: Well, we cannot fix a problem if we do not know what is causing it. In the case of TechMousso, the winning team developed a way to use open health data to record how many beds are free in maternity wards and the causes of maternal deaths. Without that information, we cannot learn which maternity wards are most in demand, why women die in childbirth, and so on. And we need this data in real time so we can react quickly and literally save more lives. The runner up developed a connected jewelry with health data that can be scanned and can provide medical personnel needed updated data for emergency care. DBlamou, which placed third in TechMousso, is allowing for efficient intervention on gender-based violence with data supplied by victims and witnesses.
Kostura: How can governments and the private sector in Africa address issues related to data poverty where human development data is simply not available for some populations?
Nwakanma: A lack of data or poor quality data is one of the biggest challenges facing our region. Governments must invest in boosting statistical capacity, and ensuring there is a culture of openness around data from the start. Business often have a lot of very useful data—from numbers on everything from Internet penetration to mobile money users—opening up this sort of data for the public good would result in economic and social gains, and boost the economies these business operate in.
Kostura: You co-founded the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa and serve as a board member of the Open Source Initiative. Could you explain what free and open source software is, and how it can play a role in economic growth and development in African countries?
Nwakanma: The notion of accountability, transparency, and community participation, is more important than the software itself. Free and open source means anyone can see the code behind the software, and it is free to use without royalties. In recent years there’s been a lot of hype around Africa’s startup scene, and what we have been able to achieve even with limited resources. Having software that is free and open source allows these startups to keep their costs low, and promote creativity and collaboration to improve software programmes.
But in terms of economic growth, free and open software only gets us so far. We still need governments to improve the governance and regulations these startups operate in, improve infrastructure so their businesses can run on reliable electricity and Internet services and make Internet access more affordable so more people can get online, increasing the potential consumer base. That is when we will start to see Africa’s digital revolution take off—we have really only just begun.