Open Data in Africa: virtuous examples and promising perspectives

by Ornella Darova

Open Data are data that can be read, used and distributed by anyone freely. According to the Open Data Barometer, Sub-Saharan African countries are the worst performing globally in open data availability in terms of all the criteria employed by the ranking: readiness, implementation and impact. No country has truly demonstrated clear leadership in the continent. However, there are a few examples of regional pioneers: countries like Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana have already started implementing initiatives promoting the open data culture and other ones like Burkina Faso, Benin, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda have become active lately, committing to drive incipient or new open data projects.

In addition to single government efforts, in the recent years there has been a number of initiatives and agreements involving various actors across the continent, promoted by groups of states, international organizations and also independent journalists and researchers. 7 years have passed since when 11 African states (of 75 countries in total) signed the Open Government Declaration, in order to “foster a global culture of open government that empowers and delivers for citizens, and advances the ideals of open and participatory 21st century government”. In 2015, an African Data Consensus was signed by the whole African Union in collaboration with the United Nations, aimed to build a “data ecosystem providing timely, user-driven and disaggregated data for public good and inclusive development”. Nevertheless, even if open data policy commitments have been spread fast, “implementation and impact are lagging behind, creating a risk that the open data movement could fade into a ghost town of abandoned portals and forgotten apps” (Open Data Barometer).

Features that should be evaluated to assess the openness and availability of data are:

  • Legal restrictions for the use of data
  • Availability for download in a machine-readable format
  • Granularity of data
  • Data breadth, both temporal and topical.

Based on these criteria, we are going to give a not exhaustive list of websites that are on the right track for openness, trying to highlight useful resources for students and researchers.

The most promising platform is probably the one launched by African Development Bank, “Open Data for Africa”. The portal reports the vision that motivates the initiative: “reliable data constitutes the single most convincing way of getting the people involved in what their leaders and institutions are doing”. The website hosts data from the totality of African countries and gives access to several open data initiatives like Africa Food Prices Collection, Power Africa, Africa Infrastructure Knowledge Program, Africa Health Atlas, Ebola Situation Room, Monitoring Sustainable Development Goals in Africa and so on, mainly focusing on socio-economic statistics. The data can be browsed also on a specific country basis.

Another interesting example is the one represented by OpenAFRICA, which aims to be the largest independent repository of open data on the continent. It is private, run voluntarily by Code for Africa, and it collects in a user-friendly interface data from public sources: 3165 datasets including a Sustainable Development Goal baseline survey, World Bank data and other information from local public institutions.

However, the largest collection of comparable country-level economic and development data remains the DataBank from the World Bank with several databases covering basically every country in the world, included Sub-Saharan Africa of course, and dating back 57 years. Nevertheless, not all areas present complete time series, especially when it comes to the African continent, thus indicating challenges faced by national statistical offices.

Besides initiatives at the continent level, there are also remarkable efforts to offer open data at national levels for some virtuous countries.

A very user-friendly interface is offered by one of the most frequently updated sites when it comes to national African statistical institutes: Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). However, a relevant part of the data is not machine-readable (in pdf format) and is subject to several restrictions: no commercial use is allowed, and the data cannot be displayed in the media. Nevertheless, there is another open data portal in Kenya, “Kenya Open Data”, which seems to have embraced much more efficiently openness of data culture: from this website, it is possible to download a wide array of dataset in a variety of machine-readable formats – government data, regional, expenditures, health-related statistics, and even the 2009 census without particular restrictions.

Another portal with a very user-friendly interface (but only in French) is the one by Benin’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Analysis, that gathers machine-readable economic, social and demographic data over a relatively impressively long time period, starting from 1991.

A virtuous example to highlight is Rwanda, with its National Institute of Statistics: apart from the usual indicators and aggregate statistics, its very precise website allows to download microdata from surveys and census along with metadata, questionnaires and reports.

An additional example worth-mentioning is Burkina Faso, which has two useful websites, even though not very user-friendly: the National Institute of Statistics and Demography and the National Statistics Council. The second website is more accessible and allows to download data in excel format. It is a centralized website that gives access to data divided by minister or sector of the government providing it.

Unfortunately, many other national bureaus of statistics simply present reports and aggregated data in a not machine-readable format. There are some countries, though, that show promising perspectives. For instance, we have just had the chance to collaborate with the Statistics Bureau of Sierra Leone for a project we are currently running in the country. We have met the recently appointed Statistician General Osman Sankoh, who had previously been the Executive Director of the INDEPTH Network for 10 years after having worked at the Institute of Public Health at the University of Heidelberg and after having acted as a consultant for World Bank, World Health Organisation, University of Pennsylvania and so on.

In his visionary view, prof. Sankoh wants the institution he is leading to be a pioneer in terms of openness and sophistication of data availability in the African continent. He is designing a platform with different levels of access depending on the type of user, which can properly manage a trade-off between data availability and data privacy. His idea is to build fruitful exchanges with researchers around the world interested in the country’s statistics and data that can offer a renovated know-how to the institution. His pragmatic and creative approach to open data might be the path to follow for several countries after Sierra Leone facing similar challenges.