Open government data to fuel Kenya's app economy

The launch of Open Kenya suggests government as a platform is growing.

Open KenyaFrom Brazil to France to Australia to India, new laws and platforms are giving citizens new means to ask for, demand or simply create greater government transparency. The open data movement has truly gone global, with 19 international open data websites live around the globe. This week, the world will see another open government platform go live in Kenya.

On July 8th, the government of Kenya will launch an open government data platform. Open Kenya is powered by Socrata, the Seattle-based startup that has been instrumental in standing up open data platforms at the state, city and federal levels in the United States. With the launch of Open Kenya, Africa will have its own story of promoting transparency through open data to celebrate, learn from and share.

Newly open data will enable the comparison of different counties in Kenya, in terms of how they use resources, said Bitange Ndemo, secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications, at a press conference on July 7th. Ndemo said that the Kenyan government is committed to releasing more open data on an ongoing basis. With open data, the information and communication technology (ICT) sector can increase its contribution to the gross domestic product to 15%, asserted Ndemo, pointing to the development of local Web and mobile applications.

“The Kenyan Parliament has been pushing the open data as part of a larger policy,” said Paul Kukobo, chief executive officer of the Kenya ICT Board, in a phone interview this week. “We have been giving grants to people who develop applications that meet citizen needs for years. Many people asked us to give them access to data that they could then use for developing applications.”

As with governments around the world, the technical challenges of data collection, structuring and publishing were balanced with another issue: the beast of bureaucracy. A similar phenomenon can be seen where open government is taking root in India, with the passage of India’s Right to Information Act. New digital platforms have the potential to change the dynamic between citizens and their governments.

“The whole culture of government is that they are the data originators and data collectors,” said Kukubo. “Sharing internally was a problem in the first place. That was why the parliament secretary taking a huge role was a big deal, in terms of talking to colleagues about opening up this data. Technical challenges were not where the headache was — we have plenty of skill and partners here to do that — it was in getting the data in the first place, in the form that we needed it. Plenty of data wasn’t in digital form or usable, and was trapped in agencies.”

Strata Conference New York 2011, being held Sept. 22-23, covers the latest and best tools and technologies for data science — from gathering, cleaning, analyzing, and storing data to communicating data intelligence effectively.

Save 30% on registration with the code STN11RAD

Open Kenya will fulfill many of Tim Berners-Lee’s expectations for open data, including machine-readable data structured in .CSV files and XML, and available through APIs. Notably, the concept for Open Kenya offers context, rationales and a definition for open data, including the apt observation that “publishing PDF files do not constitute ‘open data’ and are not helpful to large-scale users.” The Open Kenya concept states that open government data must be easily found through search engines, machine-readable, interoperable and available for use and re-use under non-commercial and commercial licenses, i.e. “Creative Commons.”

That perspective is a progressive one for Open Kenya to take and will set a standard for other open data efforts. Making government data searchable changes how citizens can access it in important, potentially disruptive ways. While Open Kenya will only contain five or six datasets at launch, government officials say more will go online over the coming months. The United States open government data platform,, started with just a few data sets as well; now there are thousands.

“The project involved a significant effort to make geo-coded data available and present it using new geospatial boundaries for 47
counties,” said Safouen Rabah, vice president at Socrata. “Since 98% of Internet access in Kenya happens through mobile phones, location awareness on the site and through the API is really critical to make the data contextually relevant to ordinary Kenyans.”

Open Kenya isn’t simply about meeting data standards or publishing data online. Ultimately, it’s about changing the compact between citizens and their government. The World Bank, no small enterprise itself, was featured in the New York Times this month because of its own open data initiative. The Bank assisted the Kenyan government with its efforts. Aleem Walji, practice manager for innovation and technology at the World Bank Institute, wrote that Kenya will provide a live case study for open data, picking up the same theme and focusing on the newfound importance of opening county-level government in Kenya:

A Freedom of Information act has been sitting with the Government for years. The country recently passed a new constitution devolving significant fiscal and political authority to newly created counties. Elections are scheduled for 2012 and there is considerable demand for greater efficiency in the delivery of public services, youth-focused job creation, and improved governance. Against this backdrop, the Kenyans heard about Open Data, Open Government, and saw them as opportunities given their booming IT industry and youthful population. Over a period of 6 months, a handful of Government reformers working closely with a World Bank team paved the way for Kenya to launch one of the first and most comprehensive Open Data portals in Sub-Saharan Africa. The portal will make available multiple years of detailed government expenditure data (at the county level), household survey data, and the 2009 census mapped to the district level.  Citizens will be able to download information directly, compare data within and between provinces, create visualizations including maps and graphs, and most importantly understand the relationship between spending and public service delivery. This is where the rubber meets the road with Open Data. It’s a shift from opening datasets towards a more open and inclusive model for citizen-centric development.

“I’m most excited about the reaction that people have had,” said Kukobo, “particularly at the business level. Tickets for the launch of the website are sold out.” He found that he’s personally gaining from the change. “I’m learning a lot myself, in terms of what the data is telling me,” he said. “You can’t be clear about something you can’t define. What is going on in my country? Income levels? How many hospitals or schools are there in a county? The development community is excited about building applications so data can be useful to citizens.”

Several members of the Kenyan technical community views this launch as an historic day. “In Kenya, accessing public records even those that are about you is difficult,” tweeted Muraya Kamau, a web and mobile apps developer in Nairobi, in response to a question. “Tomorrow we get access and not just that, we get a chance to build apps that disseminate that info through various platforms.”

Open data in Kenya “means a great deal,” tweeted Juliana Rotich. “Kenyans can disaggregate the big data pronouncements into relevant info. Dev com is already using open data. Our devs have already been hacking and will showcase today.”

Open data drives the innovation economy

Wired Kenyans are wondering if open data will “give rise to great stuff,” as it has in other countries and municipalities, notably in the healthcare apps generated by the release of open data by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

“Data will fuel employment and wealth creation like never before,” tweeted Ndemo, this week. That’s a bold prediction. It may will be aided, however, by the kind of open data released, which draws from fundamental sectors in the Kenyan economy.

“The nature of Kenya open data effort is really cool, simply because of the quality of the data and how it’s presented,” said Rabah. “Open data will be available about schools, access to drinking water, hospitals — basic things that relate to daily life in Kenya.”

The prospects for mobile apps driven by open government in Kenya gaining traction are good, given a population that primarily accesses the Internet over mobile devices. “The whole reason they’ve released the data is to empower people to create social change,” said Jessica Colaço, developer evangelist at iHub, Nairobi’s online Innovation community, in an interview. “The biggest step that the Kenyan government has taken is giving data to the development community, allowing them to make visualizations and to make the data usable and useful to society.”

Colaço said that iHub has a database of 4,000 developers right now, with around 200 members interested in using this open government data. While not everyone is subscribed to data on their mobile devices, Colaço thinks that the more than 20 million mobile subscribers in Kenya will be interested in these apps. Most Kenyans with Internet access get in through their phones. In urban areas, phones are running on the Android platform, she said, including devices from Samsung, Nokia and HTC. “Currently, there’s a craze for the Android app store,” she said. “Developers will definitely get people to use open data apps.” In rural areas, however, data connections are in short supply and expensive. “I think mobile phones will be used for lot of querying of data using SMS via a USSD platform,” said Colaço. “Mobile web and SMS will be used to reach rural areas.”

There’s plenty of local technical talent to make great apps, she emphasized, pointing to the growth of M-PESA, Kenya’s mobile banking system, and the success of the Ushahidi platform for crowdsourced information gathering as evidence of Kenya’s vibrant mobile ecosystem and local development community. “An innovation such as Ushahidi being so simple and being used worldwide goes to show that when there’s a problem and a need for it, we have the resources in house to solve it,” she said.

Robert Alai, a Kenyan blogger who covered the Open Kenya press conference, said via Skype that a $100 Android smartphone device launched in December led in smartphone sales by March. “There’s a very big community,” he said, with one government agency estimate that by the end of 2012, almost every Kenyan household will have a smartphone. And at least some of that adoption was being driven by the demand for access to Facebook on mobile phone. Alai put Kenyan success on the World Stage with Ushahidi and M-PESA in the context part of a larger push towards joining the innovation economy. “Kenyans are very excited about making money from applications,” he said. “A Kenyan won a prize in the World Bank competition, in Nokia’s competition and others.”

Alai predicted that the open government data Kenya is releasing will find even more use in the development community. “Developers have been saying that when they want to create applications, it’s very difficult to get data,” he said. “When we process data, we can create applications that will make it useful.” Alai focused on the importance of releasing county level data. “Existing applications is applications are not being used to solve real life problems or used locally, yet,” he said. “They need local data. Costs are currently very high to get it. There’s a very big hunger for the data. I hope as the platforms are built that they’ll pan out well.”

In the future, Colaço hopes to see apps that create feedback loops between citizens carrying mobile phones and their government, where health, water, sanitation and education projects are monitored by everyone. “Open data does make government more accountable to the citizens, increasing trust between the government and citizens, and enhances collaboration, acting as a kind of the audit,” she said. “If you see inconsistencies, feedback in your application could report it.”

Here come the apps

Data visualizations will be among the first applications to use the open data, Colaço said. “You can actually see what’s being utilized intensely in different areas, using heatmaps. In the northeast, for instance, funds have been used for drought and famine.”

It’s in that context, perhaps, that one of the value propositions of open government data will be tested first. This week in Kenya, police tear-gassed maize and fuel price protestors as millions of lives are threatened by historic draughts in the Horn of Africa. No application can bring the rains nor data visualization deliver food to a starving child. Citizens equipped with mobile phones can, however, tell their governments where and when aid has or hasn’t arrived. In time, they can look at the government’s resource allocations in different regions and see if it matches up with reality on the ground. With better data and tools to analyze it, government itself can track what’s happening and where.

Those kinds of apps may not be long in coming. Eric Hersman (@WhiteAfrican), co-founder of Ushahidi and founder of the iHub, published a comprehensive review of Kenya’s open data initiative* that demonstrates that apps are already online:

  • The Ushahidi team took census data and mashed it up with healthcare institution data on their Huduma site
  • An SMS query apps allows Kenyan to text the name of their county or constituency to 3018. In return, they’ll receive a text with the demographics and minister of parliament of that location.
  • The iHub community built a mobile app called “Msema Kweli” that allows a citizen to find Constituency Development fund projects near them and add pictures of them

“There have been many people pushing for this, over many months, and it’s been an exciting process to watch unfold,” wrote Hersman. “Foremost amongst the drivers on this has been Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the Permanent Secretary of Information and Communications. This is indeed a very proud moment for Kenya, and a leading position to take on the continent.”

When the needs of the many are great, the empowered have a civic responsibility to help. Open government data offers those who want to help their fellow citizens a new form of civic participation. Science fiction author William Gibson famously said that “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Perhaps this week, and in the years ahead, even more Kenyans will be showing the world what it looks like.


*An earlier version of this post included a link to Hersman’s citation of Open Kenya as Africa’s first national open data platform. As Nick Judd pointed out at techPresident, Morocco launched its open data platform first.

tags: , , , , ,