What Nepal’s open data movement can learn from East Africa

The Open Nepal data portal launch took place in Kathmandu Nepal, in the first week of June, a key event of  Open Nepal week. Open Nepal promised a week of ‘open data for development’ events and workshops,  held in collaboration with theOpen Nepal partnersOpen Aid Partnership and World Bank Institute and supported by Development Initiatives. Open Nepal is a collaborative initiative, aiming to provide improved access to information on various development elements such as aid, budgets, service provision and population, and it helps civil society use this data to promote and advocate for more inclusive and effective development.

As part of Development Initiatives’ work on reducing poverty through improving access to information, we have been playing a key part in promoting civil society conversations about open data for development in East Africa. I have been closely involved with the KODI initiative here in Kenya.  I felt Open Nepal week was a real opportunity for cross learning about open data initiatives, and to meet and share ideas with like-minded organisations in Nepal.

In this blog, I want to share my main learnings and the key things I have taken away from the Open Nepal Portal launch, and to look at what can be applied to the Open Data for Development context here in the developing East African countries where I work (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania).

The relevance of open data for developing countries

The key things that strike me as the basic economic and development similarities between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Nepal are:

  1. All these countries are regarded to be of low human development in terms of Human Development Indicators
  2. They all have more than 60% of their population depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, this agriculture is small scale and not mechanised.
  3. More than 60% of the inhabitants live in rural areas, and of those who live in urban areas, the majority live in the slum areas; and
  4. All these countries have more than 25% of their population living on less than 1.25USD per day, and a large proportion living in vulnerable conditions.

Besides income poverty, multidimensional poverty exists in these countries – there is limited access to health facilities, good schools, proper sanitation, clean drinking water and electricity.

Increasingly, the lack of necessary skills, abilities or materials means that the need for budget holders to obtain efficient access to information on aid and other resources, to interpret it and apply it appropriately to drive development policy has become a real factor in developing countries.  Limited access to information means that civil society stakeholders and community leaders do not have the necessary data to make well-informed decisions that can improve people’s lives.

The Open Nepal initiative therefore provides a useful example of how we address access to information and the skills of those who need it, particularly in developing countries. The initiative aims to increase access, use and analysis of information, which is then used to inform decision-making and demand better services from governments.

Legislation for open data is necessary – but not sufficient – to create a healthy ecosystem

A proper legislative framework, in the form of a Freedom of Information (FOI) law, is important for open data initiatives to take root. FOI informs individuals of their right to access information and their governments have a duty to make information available and accessible. Nepal, Uganda and Tanzania all have Freedom of Information (FOI) Acts. Kenya however does not have an FOI and yet has a strong open data movement, suggesting that a FOI Act is necessary but not sufficient in itself for open data movements to succeed. I would also suggest that while legislation can be a means to the end, it is also not enough on its own.

Besides a legal framework, an ‘open data ecosystem’, where stakeholders (CSOs, governments, donors, NGOs, INGOs, media, academia and citizens) can build an enabling environment together, is essential. This means all these interests need to work together to enrich the open data initiative. The table below demonstrates the East Africa open data ecosystem – and gives us an understanding of what is important for an open data initiative to thrive and make information accessible and more importantly usable to multiple stakeholders:

Open Data for Development: The Ecosystem in East Africa and Nepal
Open Data for development: ecosystem in East Africa and Nepal

The key to making it work: East Africa learnings for Open Nepal

The open data movement in East Africa is further ahead than in Nepal, and our ecosystem is gradually building strength and capacity. A key learning from our perspective is that duplication often occurs in the EA region on open data platforms – with various stakeholders creating portals to make their data available. This can mean individual initiatives do not reach their full potential. The Open Nepal portal is not only a good initiative to make information accessible; it means that this duplication can be avoided – by creating an avenue for stakeholders to identify collaboration opportunities and not duplicate efforts.

Nepal is now in a good position; the open data movement is still new, and thus there is an opportunity to engage all stakeholders in the initiative and build a more collaborative effort through the Open Nepal portal. It was exciting to see these discussions about collaboration were already beginning at the Launch week. My East African colleagues and I will look forward to seeing how the Open Nepal movement develops.