Although it is true that quite often, the performance of governments in these regions is severely lacking, it is important to appreciate the scope of the issues that exist on the ground, which would severely challenge the capacity of any government. A properly implemented open data initiative would help in providing a more accurate picture of the ground reality to all stakeholders and to the extent to which their representatives have been tackling the issues.
The Challenges With Implementing an Open Data Initiative in West Africa
However, it is essential that if an Open Data initiative is to be made sustainable and not just limited to another short term development slogan, the current modus operandi of how these initiatives are administered needs to be revised. The following are some suggestions on how to restructure the conversations around Open Data in Post Conflict countries.
Revise the base assumptions that are made in evaluating the feasibility of an open data initiative. The current literature and assessment tools that are used for evaluating the capacity of various agencies are not properly attuned with the on-ground realities that exist in post conflict countries. With current data management processes being virtually non-existent coupled with very low tech skills of the end users, it is important to appreciate the low hanging fruit, especially the simplest, most “non-tech” solutions that can be implemented for addressing some of the challenges. Case in point: smartphone usage might be raging across the world and even in some East African countries, but in the context of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the majority of end users still use feature phones, quite often only for making and receiving calls. Therefore, any tech initiative should take into account these basic channels for delivering services to the end users.
Incentivize the local stakeholders to buy-into the initiative. Quite often, a well intended development initiative fails to take off since it does not have the necessary support from the major stakeholders and end users. With the open data movement, care should be taken to ensure that it is not seen as an initiative that does not have sufficient evangelists from the on-ground implementers. Donor fatigue is a major reason as to why a number of heavily backed initiatives have failed to take root in West Africa, and care needs to be taken to ensure that the open data movement does not follow this tried-and-tested trajectory.
Rephrase the conversation around “accountability” and open data to make it more inclusive. A critical consideration to make in running an open data initiative is that it would often require working in tandem with institutions and departments who might not be too enthusiastic on the added public scrutiny that the initiative would bring on them. It is also important to understand that these same institutions also hold the power to substantially slow down the implementation of the initiative. In order to mitigate this problem, care needs to be taken in ensuring that the open data initiative does not come across as an accountability ‘witch hunt’ against specific individuals, but rather, is an exercise being undertaken to improve the efficiency of the entire government machinery.
Disseminate awareness on what Open Data really encapsulates. There is a widespread misunderstanding that an open data initiative would entail all information collected by government agencies to be disclosed to the general public. Not only is this idea wrong, but it also endangers support to the initiative from other stakeholders who often balk at this seemingly little regard for privacy or protection of critical information. Therefore, it is important to properly define what open data really means, and that it only entails the proper documentation, digitization and dissemination of information which by law is to be disclosed and made publicly available.
The Next Steps
The first version of the ODRA Report for GoL has been drafted, and it is currently being reviewed internally by the World Bank. The report is expected to be launched in early 2018.