Open Data Readiness Assessment - Liberia

A World Bank directed consultancy to diagnose the preparedness of the Government of Liberia to create and run a nationwide open data program

This consultancy project was conducted while I was working as the Research and Developer lead at iDT Labs. For further information about this project please email info@idtlabs.xyz

Background

Ever since constitutional government was restored in 2006 and peace consolidated at the end of the civil war, Liberia has made commendable progress in the realm of open government. With the establishing of institutions such as the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and the Liberia Extractive Industries and Transparency Initiative (LEITI), the Government of Liberia (GoL) has showcased a strong commitment to fostering an open and peaceful society.

However, the country has lagged in terms of embracing a culture of open data, in which government data is shared in open format among government and non-government stakeholders for increased efficiency, accountability, and economic development. Unleashing the potential of open data could have transformative effects on the country’s employment rate, fiscal situation, and levels of poverty.

The Open Data Readiness Assessment

The World Bank, in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning(MFDP) and the Independent Information Commissioner (IIC), conducted the Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) for GoL. ODRA is a methodological tool developed by the Bank that is used to conduct an action-oriented assessment of the readiness of a government or individual agency to evaluate, design and implement an open data initiative. The tool is organized around the following 8 pillars:

  1. Senior Leadership

  2. Policy/Legal Framework

  3. Institutions & Capacities

  4. Data Management

  5. Demand for Open Data

  6. Civic Engagement and Capability

  7. Funding

  8. National Infrastructure

Activities Conducted Under ODRA

The following activities were conducted as part of ODRA

  1. Acquired knowledge about the open data ecosystem in Liberia, with particular focus on the activities of key stakeholders in the private sector.

  2. Interviewed a range of different stakeholders at GoL, along with representatives from the civil society, media, and the private sector to understand the unique challenges that Liberia faces in launching a nationwide open data initiative.

  3. Developed and recommended a year long action plan that GoL can take to implement a nationwide open data initiative that adheres to their requirements.

The Benefits of a Properly Implemented Open Data Initiative

Some of the major long term benefits that are a by-product of any successfully implemented open data initiative are as follows:

  1. Opening the doors for long term development projects. By not only improving the data collection processes across the major economy-driving sectors, but also by making this information easily accessible to the public, the government makes it easy for both development agencies as well as the private sector to make data driven investment decisions on projects that have the potential to create long lasting economic impact.

  2. Capacity building of government agencies and departments. A major challenge that post-conflict countries face in the adoption of digital services is the capacity of essential government ministries to properly take advantage of technology. Due to a combination of both a weak education system as well as a lack of exposure to technology, most government employees are uncomfortable with adopting technology in their every day work. A nationwide open data initiative can provide the necessary impetus to enhance the technological capacity of government agencies and departments.

  3. Strengthening of democratic institutions. The key element for any strong and vibrant democracy is the free-flow of accurate information from the government to its citizens. Keeping in mind the information asymmetries that are inherently present in post conflict countries due to weak institutions, it is vital that the democratic process is strengthened by making it easier for the public to get hold of information regarding the various activities of the government which, by law, are to be made publicly available. An open data initiative would help in this regard, since the program would encourage proactive disclosure of public information by the government, thereby enhancing the people’s trust in the activities of their elected representatives.

  4. Allowing the government to effectively communicate with its citizenry. An inherent assumption that a lot of people make about the performance of governments in post conflict zones is that they do not have the people’s best intentions at heart.
    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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.