Isaac Osiemo is a 21-year-old Kenyan who’s making waves. A student in his second year at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Osiemo has his own company, is heading off to represent his country at an international tech junket and looks set to be growing his fame and fortune with an app he’s created that leverages Kenya’s open data initiative.
Osiemo’s app is called Msema Kweli which is Swahili for “truth teller”. What Msema Kweli tells the truth about is about how Kenya’s constituency development funds are granted and spent in regions throughout the east African country.
Osiemo believes that if 16 year olds in the US and Europe can create apps that are used across continents, then Kenyans can do much the same. Using a mobile phone that runs on Android, people interested in government-funded projects can now get all the information they need about constituency development funds and how they are being managed from region to region.
“You can also post comments, complaints and recommendations on the projects. It is a platform for Kenyans to air their views on how their money is being used,” Osiemo told Kenya’s Daily Nation. “For instance, if a big number of people speak negatively about a project that may be reason for further assessment.”
Osiemo’s not the only Kenyan carving a career out of Kenya’s drive to put government documents online. After the Kenyan government put 290 sets of data online at opendata.go.ke in July to make public information available, accessible and searchable, the country’s ICT board announced it would offer grants to support entrepreneurs that built software or apps utilising open data. These grants range from $10,000 for individuals to $150,000 for companies.
"The Kenyan parliament has been pushing the open data as part of a larger policy," Paul Kukobo, head of Kenya’s ICT board recently told O'Reilly Media. "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."
Former information activist and Ushahidi co-founder, Ory Okolloh, who now manages policy and government relations for Google in sub-Saharan Africa believes good economic opportunity can be realised when governments open up their data. “Kenya was the first African country to set up an open data website and already we are seeing applications being developed. This means that not only is the information aiding citizens, researchers, academics and policy makers, but there are secondary opportunities that have a real economic impact,” says Okolloh.
The outcome of years of lobbying government, the country’s open data initiative was aided in part by Google which partnered with the state to digitise government gazettes, more than 50 years’ worth of parliamentary Hansards, together with historical records that date all the way back to 1905.
“Those of us who have been doing this work for a long time tend to focus on being adversarial, to focus on legislation and in so doing can miss opportunities to engage with government,” says Okolloh. “If you are always treating government as an enemy and position access to information as an adversarial issue, there are limited opportunities to move forward.”
Okolloh says by continually focussing on the “controversial stuff” activists and concerned organisations could miss the opportunity to open up data that could be immensely useful to citizens, civic organisations and broader society. “A big lesson I have learned is that it is important to be critical, but not at the expense of the opportunity to move forward. The work we have done in Kenya is a good example of this. One may disagree with government on policy issues, but one can agree on how to move forward, what information to open up and how to execute open information projects,” she says.
“It is an education process and it is important to show that there is a lot of information that is already public anyway. People can readily go and buy this information or gain access to it at the government printers. What’s been important in the Kenyan initiative is to show that open data presents opportunities for government as well as citizens,” says Okolloh.
Kenya has a high literacy rate (about 87% according to the World Bank statistics), but the low per capita income ($790 for 2010), means poverty is still a very real challenge for the country.
When launching the open data initiative earlier this year Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki made two important statements. The first related to the role he expected technology to play in Kenya’s growth and the second was an invitation to citizens to use information to make government accountable.
“The ICT sector has made major contributions to our economy with an annual growth rate of 20% in the last few years. I urge Kenyans to increasingly embrace the use of ICT in all possible sectors of our national endeavour for us to reap the full range of benefits it offers,” Kibaki said.
“I also call upon Kenyans to make use of this government data portal to enhance accountability and improve governance in our country. Indeed, data is the foundation of improving governance and accountability. This is because reliable and timely data is the basis for determining whether the government is delivering services effectively and accountably. Availability of data will, therefore, enable citizens to keep track of service delivery. This way the people can hold government service providers accountable for the use of public resources.”
Kenya has taken a bold step, but one that will show a ripple effect on investment, economic growth and better government. Perhaps South Africa’s ruling party, which to date has been eager to close access to information, should soon realise the wisdom of open data initiatives.