[the guardian] When violence erupted after the 2007 Kenyan elections, a team of activists produced Ushahidi – a digital open-source platform to monitor crises in near real-time. Taking its name from the kiswahili word for testimony, or witness, Ushahidi has since been deployed to monitor unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, track violence in Gaza, and gather global reports about the spread of Swine Flu. Around the same time, a partnership between Vodafone and Safaricom, Kenya's largest mobile operator, produced M-PESA, the mobile banking system that has revolutionised the way many Kenyans manage their money.
Projects from Ushahidi to M-PESA have put Kenya firmly on the map of ICT innovation in international development – a position and a trend the Kenyan government now seems eager to promote. Last week, Kenya became the first sub-Saharan African country to launch a national open data initiative, opening the books on public expenditures, parliamentary proceedings and the locations of public services.
The Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI), which went live last Thursday, holds more than 160 datasets organised under six subheadings: education, energy, health, population, poverty and water and sanitation. Users can explore data at the country-level, but also by county or constituency. The platform includes newly created geospatial boundaries for Kenya's 47 counties and geocoded datasets can be visualised quickly using simple built-in tools. Data is pulled in from the national census and governMwment ministries as well as from the World Bank.
"Our information is a national asset, and it's time it was shared: this data is key to improving transparency; unlocking social and economic value; and building Government 2.0 in Kenya," says the KODI website.
The initiative, launched by the Kenyan government, aims to promote data-driven decision making and help improve government transparency and accountability.
Users of the open data portal can create interactive charts and tables, and developers can download the raw data via an API to analyse and build applications for web and mobile. There's also a "suggest a dataset" button that collects requests for new data. Demands have already piled in with requests for data on youth unemployment, libraries, crime and the locations of primary and secondary schools.
Writing for the East African, Charles Onyango-Obbo, Nation Media Group's executive editor for Africa and digital media, suggests that Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki's acceptance of the open data intiative is linked to the "enlightened malice" of an outgoing leader putting measures in place "that make it harder for their predecessors to govern with as free a hand as they did". Kenya currently ranks 154 out of the 178 countries listed in Transparency International's annual corruption index.
"For the first time ever, people in our communities will be empowered to choose the best schools for their children, locate the nearest health facility that meets their needs, and use regional statistics to lobby their constituency representative for better infrastructure and services in their county," said Paul Kubuko, CEO of the Kenya ICT Board, to mark the launch.
The data portal is managed by the Kenya ICT Board in partnership with the World Bank, and is powered by Socrata, a Seattle-based startup that has worked on open data projects with partners such as the City of Chicago and Medicare, the US government social insurance programme for those over 65 and for people living with disabilities.
But with the still low proportion of people connected to the internet in Kenya, does a digital platform for government data really make that information more accessible? According to Socrata, only 25.9% of Kenyans have access to the internet. But, the developer is quick to point out, the majority of Kenyans – 63.2% – have mobile access, and the open data portal should be seen as an important first step towards the development of mobile applications to improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans.
"It now falls to Kenya's dynamic and entrepreneurial citizens to create user-friendly and relevant applications that will benefit Kenyans by identifying development solutions and improving development outcomes," said World Bank country director Johannes Zutt at the launch event in Nairobi.
To promote the new platform, the Kenya ICT Board is awarding grants to developers to create "high-impact" apps using the data. Already, the team behind the Ushahidi-powered platform, Huduma – kiswahili for "services" – has used the data to map and explore access to health, infrastructure and education. Virtual Kenya has built an application mapping counties where MPs have refused to pay taxes. The Nairobi-based Business Daily has announced plans to publish a series of articles on the newly released data.
The right to information was enshrined in the 2010 Kenyan Constitution, which also requires the government to publish and publicise any important information affecting the country. But progress on translating words into action has been slow and the government has yet to enact freedom of information legislation. An open data initiative, though, is a big step for any country - and how the newly accessible datasets will effect the relationships between Kenyans and their government is certainly something to watch.
Kenya opens its books in revolutionary transparency drive - The government says making data public through the Kenya Open Data Initiative is key to improving transparency
see also Kenya Open Data Initiative