Towards a sustainable Kenya open data initiative

“Data is the foundation of improving accountability and governance.” President of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, on the official launch of Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) in July 2011.

The curtain drew on a highly successful Africa Counts round table on ‘Enriching Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) from an Open Development Perspective’ on 21 November 2012 at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi, Kenya. As anticipated, the event drew participants from a wide range of stakeholders including leading CSOs, media, government representatives, techies, judiciary, policy makers and development partners. The round table was the first of its kind in Kenya and applauded as the first real effort in engaging civil society to define the destiny of KODI. In his opening remarks, Mr. Al Kags, the CEO of Goode Communications and an Open Institute Trustee, observed that “this is a day that has been long in coming and it is extremely important that it has arrived.” He couldn’t have been more right, given the important role played by CSOs in creating linkages with citizens to improve lives in Kenya. One of the key objectives of the round table was to initiate an inclusive process co-opting CSOs and other stakeholders for the utility and sustainability of KODI. Interesting perspectives were provided by participants on what role they could play in sustaining KODI.

The long road to information

Article 35 of the Kenyan Constitution enshrines the right to access information held by the state. It also requires the government to publish and publicise any important information affecting the nation. We know the provision of public data and information is the basic tenet of transparency, accountability and bestows citizens the power to hold duty bearers to account. In this day and age it is difficult to envision progress in Kenya without a responsive, efficient and accountable government informing citizens about its dealings on their behalf. This is what the architects of KODI had in mind when they were crafting it. Charles Lwanga-Ntale, Development Initiatives’ Regional Director for Africa, argues that Kenya’s approach in establishing KODI first, then beginning to work on the justification (policy/legal framework) later was probably better than Uganda’s approach. This approach worked well for a country caught up in bureaucratic red tape and government infighting, which would have made it impossible to adopt an inclusive approach in establishing KODI given the acrimonious relationship between government and civil society. In comparison, Uganda has had the Freedom of Information Law since 2005 but real progress in availing public data and information has been more elusive.

Unfortunately, we are drawing tough lessons from the absence of a legal framework to safeguard KODI in Kenya. Speaker after speaker alluded to this as a fundamental weakness of KODI. Ms. Linet Kwamboka, Coordinator at Kenya Open Data Initiative admitted the lack of legislation compelling government bodies to release data to the public is holding back progress. The journey to a Freedom of Information Law has been long and winding since the first attempt to enact it in 2007 through a private members Bill. During the special session to analyse the draft Freedom of Information (FOI) and Data Protection Bills, Mr. Martin Oloo, a Nairobi based legal expert, highlighted the omissions and commissions that dilute and, in some instances, do not shed adequate light on the letter and spirit of the constitution. In particular, he sighted the provisions on Private Body and Public Officer, one-off provision for proactive disclosure, the absence of provisions entrenching KODI in FOI and requirements for public entities to deposit certain agreed information to an open portal in line with the principles of open government, among others. Participants provided valuable contributions on how the legal framework could be strengthened. A key highlight of the meeting was a request from the Commission on Implementation of the Constitution (CIC) to submit a memorandum incorporating CSO feedback and specific recommendations on the draft Bills. The special request was made by Mr. James Wagala and Judge Nyirenda Kenyatta, both from CIC. By sheer coincidence the two had been on a retreat to review the draft Bills a day prior to the round table.

Building a supporting ecosystem for open development

It became apparent as the round table progressed that KODI cannot stand on its own. It needs support from an ecosystem that can help sustain it from an open development perspective. This ecosystem would be mindful of the interconnectedness and interaction of data producers, intermediaries, technology developers, analysts and users. It would also enable citizens to acquire resources and information to participate in decision making and hold government to account.  What we really need is openness in all components of development (policy, systems, sectors, content creation, access, use, participation, open licensing, open content, open data, and open government). This should lead to participatory development, strengthen the legitimacy of the government and create a focus on inclusion and social justice.

In defining the next steps the following recommendations were proposed:

  • Submission of a memorandum on FOI and Data Protection Bills to CIC.
  • Reconceptualise open development in Kenya to locate KODI in more holistic framework and include what needs to happen at different interfaces.
  • Underpin all data/information with ‘primary questions’ on impact on poverty eradication.
  • Extend the concept of openness to all stakeholders – not only government. More specifically establish an open civil society in Kenya.
  • Create more awareness about what KODI is doing and can do to enhance development objectives, including transparency and accountability.
  • Review participation in KODI’s work to include CSOs, academia, research organisations and citizen groups.
  • Consider the establishment of a regular mechanism for discussing progress through a reference group.

These, among others, were identified as critical steps in enhancing civil society engagement in order to create better awareness of KODI and its objectives. More important still was the need to re-define an ecosystem to make it more efficient and effective, bring harmony and value-addition to its work and promote open access to data/information even in situations where technology is inadequate. Of course we must not forget that the primary objective of poverty eradication must be kept alive in KODI’s work if its sustainability is to be assured.

For more information please contact Davis Adieno at 

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