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Expert Insight: The United Nation’s Open Data Efforts In Africa

We talk to Oliver J. M. Chinganya, Director, African Centre for Statistics

16May

Ahead of his presentation at the  Open Data Innovation Summit in London on June 12 & 13, we spoke to Oliver J. M. Chinganya, Director, African Centre for Statistics.

Oliver, is Director of the African Centre for Statistics at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Previously worked as the Division Manager, Statistics Department of the African Development Bank, with responsibility for Statistical Capacity Building. Prior to taking on this role, Oliver had roles with the IMF and the World Bank. He was previously Deputy Director of the Zambia Central Statistical Office. Oliver's qualifications include an MSc. in Social Statistics from University of Southampton, UK and an MBA from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

What are the biggest challenges currently facing the open data movement?

Donor-driven initiatives without country buy-in and commitment need to change. Donor funding can be used as seed money, but governments should be ready to take over. For instance, the Kenya Open Data initiative used to be funded by World Bank but is losing traction when this funding was terminated. The point here is, we need to have data initiatives mainstreamed into our activities to avoid projects fizzling out when donor funding dries up.

We need to institutionalize the open data among government agencies including the National Statistical System – who have a low level of open data awareness and lack the technical capacity to open their data. To be able to open sensitive data held by government such as government contracts, government official’s salary, etc, agencies needs strong political leadership and support.

It is worth noting that most of the donor funding has targeted the research and Civil Society Organization communities. When government departments are engaged, it’s usually those responsible for ICT related initiatives or freedom of information. While these are important stakeholders (or more precisely in this context, data communities), we need the statistics offices and other data generating communities to have the same buy in. The existing model has also been to set up an ‘open data portal’, or similar platform, where the data is then uploaded. That will not work. In our ‘Making Official Statistics Open by Default’ initiative, we are focusing on ‘open data services’. That is, let data producers disseminate their own data using open data guidelines. The portal could be a kind of metadata clearinghouse that directs users to available services. Of course there is need for strong coordination to reduce duplication and redundancies, as well as ensuring that gaps are minimized.

How do you approach company leaders about opening up data?

The private sector remains mainly as a user or broker of open (government) data, it is not a provider of data. It’s not easy to make a strong case for company leaders to open their data, but a few possible arguments include:

  • Contribution for the social good, especially for companies whose business model depends on data generated by the public (social network, telecommunication companies; ‘we believe in the moral obligation of data-driven organizations to share data and contribute to society.’ - BBVA)
  • Increase consumer trust and public trust e.g. for parastatal companies in the mining industry (Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) which can distantly relate to an increase in benefits

However, companies are there to make money, and the argument about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) alone will not necessarily work. There is a need to involve the private sector when developing policies and strategies on public-private partnerships for data.

What has been the biggest benefit of the increased amount of open data in society?

First of all, on the premise of question, it seems hard to argue that ‘amount of open data in society has increased’ – there is no quantitative evidence.

For the benefit of open data in general: there is still limited evidence of the economic benefits, especially for developing countries (there are estimates but it’s questionable whether the often-cited results from McKinsey are applicable to Africa and the positive World Bank results are for the EU).

In Africa, the benefit seems still intangible and hard-to-measure, such as an increased transparency and the potential for better decision-making

Do you have any examples of where the use of open data has had the most profound impact on business performance?

The concept of open data is relatively new in Africa. This is the reason why we have made deliberate steps to first engage the stakeholders within the national statistical system to bring awareness. The ultimate objective is to make data open by default. The awareness campaign will involve a number players including the civil society organizations and the private sector. In short, we don't have concrete examples to cite now but indications are that some companies are beginning to appreciate the benefits.

What can our audience expect to hear from you in London?

During the session, I will inform the audience of the need for consensus among national statistical offices and other data generating agencies to make official statistics available as an essential component of open data initiatives and work together to develop open data services for official statistics.

You can catch Oliver's presentation at the Open Data Innovation Summit in London on June 12 & 13.

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