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Digital divides and open data definitions hinder the efficacy of open data in developing countries

A guest post by Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai.

"Sierra Leone was selected not because we thought there were many open data initiatives, but because we wanted to explore countries that have little or no initiatives”, were the words of Jose Alonso, Open Data Programme Director at the World Wide Web Foundation when describing, at the Open Data in Developing Countries project network meeting in Berlin, how the Sierra Leone research project was selected from a highly competitive process providing grants to explore open data in seventeen developing countries.

Listening to his introduction, I clearly thought Jose’s word and decision appeared to have struck the right note, as Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone (SDI) explores open data not only in theoretical shape, but also assesses as an effective and efficient practical transparency tool. The findings of the investigation, I dare say, made groundbreaking discoveries in a country that otherwise would have been ‘less attractive’ for an open data study.

Initially, the study targeted three sectors: open data in local government utilizing the lens of the Local Government Acts; open data in mining and extractives industry sector further using the Mines and Minerals Act and the extractive industry transparency initiatives; and the public finance management initiative built within the public finance management structures and the public expenditure policies.

As team leader, I knew a lofty goal had been set for a country like Sierra Leone. Stepping into a murky Sierra Leonean world where secrecy and entrenched corruption have mired governance, open data can certainly seem like a strange proposition for opening government:  and the resistance I encountered to it, borne out of lack of awareness, was in many ways frightening. Worse, a decade long freedom or access to information campaign has clouded the Sierra Leonean mindset to see this as the only citizen demand-driven accountability mechanism.

Despite these odds, the study has contributed to the intellectual discussion on open data is least developed countries in a number of key ways.
Firstly, it has questioned the emphasis on digital as the main means of data distribution. The widely adopted framework for defining open data focuses on the machine readability of data and is skewed toward a classification set-up suited to highly digitized and most developed societies. It thereby excluded the ‘bottom billion’ of the world population that have little or no access to digital technologies such as computers.

However, despite this biased and narrow definition and approach, efforts like mandating local councils in Sierra Leone to post notices, narrative and financial reports on Notice Boards are effective and innovative means of making available data sets to a broad array of people who not only lack access to computers, but are ill-equipped to even operate one.

Secondly, it has underscored the central role of intermediaries in making information available and re-using information in a highly illiterate society like rural Sierra Leone where media practitioners and journalists use the published information on the notice boards of local councils to inform the public through mass media.

Further, the practice of publishing data sets on printed papers underscore the fact that data sets meant to be re-usable do not necessarily have to be transferred between emails or spreadsheet formats placed in network systems for formal sectors use.  Placing them on Ward notice boards allows citizens with sufficient training to ask questions on service delivery issues in their localities.

Thirdly, the study also explored the importance of legislating for open data rather than following current trends that rely on discretional willingness on the part of policy makers to open government held data. It posits that a legislated drive to open data may speed the entrenchment of the culture of openness in rather closed societies.

Finally, the research draws the link between the access to information community and the emerging community of open data high-tech users. Discovering the hidden but beneficial dependability of both communities on each other.  While access to information can clearly legislate open data through its ‘proactive disclosure provisions’, thereby making open data a mandate by law; open data advanced high technology approach can aid citizens access to information through tools like portals and online request provision.

When open data is legislated, the tendency for public officials to renege on making available data set or any information will be forbidden by law and will draw sanction through the formal legal system. However, even citizens can demand official compliance of the legal mandates by seeking explanations and asking questions on the lack of such compliance.

Certainly, Jose was right, Sierra Leone could not have been an ideal place for research on open data, but the findings of the SDI-led research has unraveled quite interesting characteristic of what open data ought to be in developing countries, rather than what it is now. The findings have also raised enough questions on the need for a rethink and paradigm shift on the global definition of open data as a modern transparency mechanism.


Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai is the executive director of Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone (SDI) , the civil society organization that championed the FOI bill into law and led the campaign for ten years. He is always the lead researcher for the ODDC research in Sierra Leone led by SDI. He is a lawyer by profession, and has been a transparency and accountability activist for the past ten years.  Contact: measdrb@gmail.com