Open data: Opportunities and challenges for Africa’s development

By March 20, 2017 No Comments

by Simone Fugar

Open data: a basic human right?

Open data refers to data that can be freely accessed, used and redistributed by anyone without restrictions. The open data movement has sustained momentum for good reason. For the “access to information” to be recognized internationally as a fundamental human right, reinforces the importance of information in realizing economic, social and political development. By definition, information is simply data that has been processed – so surely open data is equally as important in realizing these development goals.

They say information is power – and so is open data.


Improving decision making from farmers to policy-makers

Data has become the cornerstone of effective decision making in many contexts. In the agriculture sector, open data has been a powerful tool in solving myriad problems in different stages of the food production chain. This is especially important given the current state of the global food system, which is facing pressures of climate uncertainty and a growing population.

In Africa, organizations such as Esoko have experienced first-hand the impact that open data has on livelihoods, by providing smallholder farmers relevant data on market prices and weather information via SMS and voice. Simply knowing if it will rain helps farmers plan fertilizer and pesticide use and improve efficient use of irrigation. With access to market prices, farmers are in a better position to negotiate with middle-men and can also decide where to sell their produce for the best price. Access to this basic information can help farmers increase their revenues; various research finds such services can improve incomes for farmers by about 10%.

Other more sophisticated uses of open data in improving decision making in agriculture exist. The GroenMonitor tool, for instance, uses satellite images and maps made public by the European Space Agency (ESA) to help farmers identify and mitigate pest outbreaks in the Netherlands. In California, open data from the US Department of Agriculture is being used by policy makers to inform how the state allocates its scarce water resources, during one of its most severe droughts on record.


Poor government data in developing countries

The potential to improve decision making for different actors in agriculture through open data is clear from the above examples. Although open data is used across both developed and developing countries, its sophisticated use is mostly concentrated in the former. Given that agriculture constitutes over 70% of the economy of Sub-Saharan Africa, the potential to impact lives and decisions through open data is huge, yet remains largely untapped.

This begets the question, if open data can be considered a basic human right and its potential to improve decision making is obvious, why aren’t developing countries harnessing this fully?

In developed countries, government remains a reliable source of data given they have the technical know-how and qualified human resource to collect quality data. Countries like the US and the UK have launched open data initiatives giving their citizens access to high value datasets generated by their respective government agencies.

The story is different in less developed countries, where there is a dearth of information on basic economic and demographic data. According to the final report of the Data for African Development Working Group, which sought to understand the data gap in Africa, the challenges are fourfold:

  • Funding for data collection is often unstable and inadequate
  • Data accuracy is rarely checked
  • Donors’ priorities sometimes overtake national ones
  • National statistical offices lack incentives to improve


Business models for open data

Lack of reliable government data puts pressure on private sector actors to collect the data they need. However, once this data is collected it is at best shared and at worst, closed – meaning its access becomes limited to those within the organizations or to paying clients. This does not help solve the lack of open data problem, as those who cannot afford it at the bottom of the pyramid, are still left out of the loop.

One of the barriers to opening up data for private organizations is the lack of business models for open data. With the high cost of data collection in developing countries, it is no surprise that organizations would hesitate to share freely their data. The GODAN secretariat has developed a rich slide deck of Business Models for Open data which will be useful to any business looking to make more impact with their data.


Need for concerted effort to open up data

The importance of open data for informed decision making cannot be understated. And it is clear Africa needs more open data – and solutions developed around it – if we are to achieve sustainable development. This requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders from government, to private sector to the NGO community. Africa’s development in agriculture and other areas rests on our ability to generate quality data that is open, reliable and accessible to its decision makers – from an individual to a policy level.


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