At Ushahidi, we have interacted with various organizations around the world, and the key thing we remember from reaching out to some NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Kenya is that we faced a lot of resistance when we began in 2008, with organizations not willing to share data which was often in PDFs and not in machine-readable format.

This was especially problematic as we were crowdsourcing information about the events that happened that year in Kenya. Our partners in other countries have had similar challenges in gathering relevant and useful data that is locked away in cabinets, yet was paid for by taxpayers. The progress in the Gov 2.0 and open data space around the world has greatly encouraged our team and community.

When you’ve had to deal with data hugging disorder of NGOs, open data is a welcome antidote and opportunity. Our role at Ushahidi is to provide software to help collect data, and visualize the near real-time information that’s relevant for citizens. The following are some thoughts from our team and what I had hoped to share at OGP in Brazil.

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Ushahidi developers Henry Addo and Linda Kamau.

Government Data is important

  • It is often comprehensive – It covers the entire country. For example, a national census covers an entire country, so it has a large sample, whereas other questionnaires have a smaller sample.
  • Verified – Government data is “clean” data; it has been verified — for example, the number of schools in a particular region. Crowdsourcing projects done by government can be quite dependable. (Read this example of how Crowdmap was used by the Ministry of Agriculture in Afghanistan to collect commodity prices.)
  • Official – government data forms the basis of government decision making and policy. If you want to influence government policy and interventions, it needs to be based on official data.
  • Expensive – Government data because it is comprehensive and verified is expensive to collect — this expense is covered by the taxpayer.

Platforms are important

Libraries were built before people could read. Libraries drove the demand for literacy. Therefore, it makes sense that data and data platforms exist before before citizens have become literate in data. As David Eaves wrote in the Open Knowledge Foundation blog:

It is worth remembering: We didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

Some countries like Kenya now have the data, and now open-source platforms available not just for Kenya but worldwide. What are we missing?

Platforms like Ushahidi are like fertile land, and having open data is like having good seeds. (Good data equals very good seeds.) But fertile land and seeds are not much without people and actions on that very land. We often speak about technology being 10 percent of what needs to go into a deployment project — the rest is often partnership, hard work and, most of all, community. Ordinary citizens can be farmers of the land; we need to get ordinary citizens involved at the heart of open government for it to powerful.

Ushahidi’s role

Accessible data: The ownership debate has been settled as we agree government data belongs to the citizens. However, ownership is useless without access. If you own a car that you do not have access to, that car is useless to you. In the same way, if our citizens own data they have no access to, it’s useless to them. Ownership is exercised through access. Ushahidi makes data accessible — our technology “meets you where you are.” No new devices are needed to interact with the data.

Digestible data: Is Africa overpopulated? If Africa is overpopulated or risks overpopulation, what intervention should we employ? Some have suggested sterilization. However, the data shows us that the more education a woman has, the less babies she has. Isn’t a better intervention increasing education opportunities for women? This intervention also has numerous additional advantages for a country — more educated people are usually more economically productive.

Drive demand for relevant data: Governments are frustrated that the data they have released is not being used. Is this because data release is driven mainly by the supply side, not the demand side — governments release what they want to release, not what is wanted? How do we identify data that will be useful to the grassroots? We can crowdsource demand for data. For example: The National Taxpayer Alliance in Kenya has shown that when communities demand and receive relevant data, they become more engaged and empowered. There are rural communities suing MPs for misusing constituency development funds. They knew the funds were misused because of the availability of relevant data.

Closing the feedback loop: The key to behavioral change lies in feedback loops. These are very powerful, as exemplified by the incredible success of platforms like Facebook, which are dashboards of our social lives and that of our networks. What if we had a dashboard of accountability and transparency for the government? How about a way to find out if the services funded and promised for the public were indeed delivered and the service level of said services? For example: The concept of Huduma in Kenya, showed an early prototype of what such a dashboard would look like. We are working on more ways of using the Ushahidi platform to provide for this specific use case. Partnership announcements will be made in due course about this.

All this, To what end? Efficiency and change

If we as citizens can point out what is broken, and if the governments can be responsive to the various problems there are, we can perhaps see a delta in corruption and service provision.

Our role at Ushahidi is making sure there’s no lack of technology to address citizen’s concerns. Citizens can also be empowered to assist each other if the data is provided in an open way.

Open Data leading to Open Government

It takes the following to bridge open data and open government:

  • Community building – Co-working spaces allow policy makers, developers and civic hackers to congregate, have conversations, and build together. Examples are places like the iHub in Kenya, Bongo Hive in Zambia, and Code For America meetups in San Fransisco, just to name a few.
  • Information gathering and sharing – Crowdsourcing plus traditional methods give not only static data but a near real-time view of what’s going on on the ground.
  • Infrastructure sharing – Build capacity once, reuse many times — e.g., Crowdmap.
  • Capacity building – If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere. Developing countries have a particularly timely opportunity of building an ecosystem that is responsive to citizens and can help to leapfrog by taking open data, adding real-time views, and most of all, acting upon that data to change the status quo.
  • Commitment from government – We can learn from Chicago (a city with a history of graft and fraud), where current CTO John Tolva and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel have been releasing high-value data sets, running hackathons, and putting up performance dashboards. The narrative of Chicago is changing to one of a startup haven! What if we could do that for cities with the goal of making smart cities truly smart from the ground up? At the very least, surfacing the real-time view of conditions on the ground, from traffic, energy, environment and other information that can be useful for urban planners and policy makers. Our city master plans need a dose of real-time information so we can build for our future and not for our past.
  • Always including local context and collaboration in the building, implementation and engagement with citizens.

Would love to hear from you about how Ushahidi can continue to partner with you, your organization or community to provide tools for processing data easily and, most importantly, collaboratively.

Daudi Were, programs director for Ushahidi, contributed to this post.

A longer version of this story can be found on Ushahidi’s blog.