Muchiri Nyaggah

This member participated in the following Forums

Muchiri Nyaggah
Muchiri NyaggahLocal Development Research Institute Kenya

I think there are many examples out there where open data and ICTs have negative impact on vulnerable populations. We just don't hear about them as much as we should. I sometimes wonder if this is because of the incentive structures that exist within the sector. A lot of this work is still predominantly donor-funded and program managers are fairly reticent to admit failure due to perceived negative impact on their careers/KPIs/end-of-year evaluations. This contributes to the broader political economy of data resulting in uneven progress, disenfranchisement of the vulnerable and a faulty narrative on impacts where claims are unfounded and causal chains non-existent. Open data, at some point, may result in the reconfiguration of the balance of power which would invariably trigger push-back from those rent seekers exploiting the status quo. It is naive to imagine those only exist in the public sector and not in the development sector (including funders). 

Having said that, there are examples that offer lessons we should all learn from. The key lesson, for purposes of this discussion, is not to pursue open data initiatives that are abstracted from the developmental agenda and the broader human rights framework. When little effort is made to connect open data and ICT initiatives to the core development goals we should be pursuing, we end up with projects/programs that reinforce inequalities and protect the current balance of power. It becomes about empowering the empowered.

A well-documented example of the impact of empowering the empowered is found in the 2007 paper Bhoomi: ‘E-Governance’, Or, An Anti-Politics Machine Necessary to Globalize Bangalore? by Dr. Solomon Benjamin and colleagues. Because those who could access the ICT platforms that held data on titles/land tenure were educated, mostly urban and able to access legal and financial resources, they translated this access into dispossession of land from rural farmers who didn't have the access, resources or education. A well-intentioned e-government program became a source of great misery for many in Bangalore.

Early on in countries where public procurement moved towards e-procurement and reduced or eliminated publishing of tenders in print media, those without the digital skills or access to utilize the online platforms were left at the mercy of intermediaries or missed out completely. The platforms didn't make things better except improve administrative efficiencies for the public sector. Other factors that affect access to e-services or public procurement such as access to credit, land tenure or gender equality were not addressed. Anecdotally, access to these opportunities simply mirrored existing inequalities where women and young people have less access to economic empowerment opportunities than men.

If an open data initiative serves to ensure people continue to be left behind, it causes damage rather than bring benefits to citizens.

Muchiri Nyaggah
Muchiri NyaggahLocal Development Research Institute Kenya

Reaping the benefits of open data requires policy actors to think about the macro environment within which data lives, above and beyond the specific focus on open data. It also requires making a deliberate connection between an effort to open up data with a specific development agenda being pursued. For instance, an exploration of the types of investments needed to unlock value in open data would need to examine the state of e-government in the country and specifically within the ministries responsible for agriculture and their 'thematically adjacent' peers. In many instances, the investments that have been made on e-government were explicitly connected to service delivery objectives designed to empower citizens and reduce barriers to access such as geography.

Holistic Investments for Open Data

At LDRI, we study this area using a four-part framework looking at the following aspects which, in my view, are where investments should be targeted as a priority;

  1. Policy for data (and open data): Does the policy/legal framework in place provide an enabling environment for collection, use, analysis and sharing (opening) of data across ministries, departments and agencies?
  2. Financial Resourcing: Does the government make or have available the financial resources to address the gaps in data collection, analysis, and dissemination? To what extent is this resourced by development partners (speaks to sustainability)
  3. Infrastructure: Is the e-government software, hardware and network infrastructure in place to ensure digital origination of administrative data (at the least) and survey/census data (ideally)? Is the infrastructure in place to open up the data in formats that are electronically appropriate and easily discoverable?
  4. Human capital: Do the staffs have the requisite skills to collect, manage, analyze, communicate and disseminate the data? If there are terabytes upon terabytes of data available but no staff who can use it or apply institutional policy to open it there will be little progress.

Holistic Approaches to Open Data

Ensuring the right policy/legal frameworks are in place and enforced is key to protecting farmers from exploitation, especially where personally identifiable information is concerned. This cannot be addressed without taking a rights-based approach to open data. Ultimately, open data is only a means of implementation for a development agenda that seeks to address the challenges preventing people from realising their objectives and exercising their agency. Preventing misuse of open data is all but impossible due to the nature of open data. But in a governance environment where there is a narrow digital divide and low inequality, harmful misuse of open data would likely be lower if not absent.

However, although preventing misuse of open data in its entirety is impossible, it is possible to empower farmers so they don't remain vulnerable. One way of doing this is to ensure the data, as well as insights being derived from it, are made available at the grassroots to the greatest extent possible. This means working with grassroots organisations to build their digital literacy and capacity as well as educating the masses on their rights. It also means using a variety of channels/tools to get the curated data to rural communities, beyond the web tools and mobile apps that may be easier to deploy in urban and more tech savvy communities. FM Radio, public gatherings and print media still remain the 'killer apps'  for dissemination in rural communities across the global south.

In summary, therefore, I suggest two broad ideas:

  1. Think beyond open data to the broader macro environment in the public sector within which data originates in order to identify the priority areas to put investment guided by the local context.
  2. Take a rights-based approach to open data in order to ensure policy and legal frameworks support the development of citizen agency and protect farmers from harmful practices.