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Three critical success factors to turn an African Open Data Revolution from vision to reality

Web Foundation · August 31, 2015

In March, Africa formalised its intention to become an open data leader, when ministers from across the continent inked the African Data Consensus, declaring that “official data belong to the people and should be open to all. They should be open by default.”

This week, almost six months on, hundreds will gather in Dar es Salaam for the African Open Data Conference. We’re proud to be a partner to this conference, which promises to be an important milestone on the road to turning Africa’s open data vision into a reality. We want to see a future where open data helps empower citizens across the continent to participate meaningfully in development – using data to highlight the issues and solve the challenges that matter most to them.

So what will it take to get there? Here are three critical success factors.


Sustained leadership and investment

It’s one thing to add your country’s name to a declaration. It’s quite another to have the vision and tenacity to implement this commitment and see it through. Creating a sustainable open data initiative is an incredibly complex undertaking – and there’s no one size fits all approach. London or Lagos can, and should, pursue different paths to Prague or Pretoria.  

But what is common across countries is the need for strong leadership from the very top and for that commitment to be sustained, even as political leaders or priorities shift. Our 2014 Open Data Barometer – an 86 country study of open data’s impact – found that “open data initiatives that receive both senior-level government backing and sustained resources are much more likely to achieve impact.” Most African countries lie towards the bottom of the Barometer rankings and we would like to work towards changing that.

That’s a simple finding, but an important one. African leaders must commit to open data – passing national laws if needed – and follow that commitment up with sustained action and investment. Donors and international organisations must support these efforts. Meanwhile,  the open data community also has an important role to play – we must do more to help leaders understand how open data can unlock social benefit. What is more, we must give leaders the evidence they need to convince sceptical advisors and voters that investing in open data makes economic and political sense. The forthcoming International Open Data Charter, and Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (with further details to be unveiled at the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals UN Summit in New York), could have an important role to play here. We also note the initial steps taken by the government and people of Kenya, in setting up a national forum for harnessing the data revolution for its sustainable development. Many more of such innovative engagements are needed.


Innovation for impact

Since 2013, the Web Foundation has been leading a major research study to understand the emerging impacts of open data in developing countries, involving 100+ researchers across 13 countries. This research has shown that while there are isolated stories of significant impact, the true potential of government data remains largely untapped. It’s also clear that simply importing models and approaches developed in advanced economies is doomed to fail. We are now in the third phase of research with a newly appointed Africa Regional Research Manager who will be managing projects on open data in agriculture, African cities, health, sustainable business models and illicit money flows in the extractive industry. We will be discussing these research and innovation projects at the conference.

Innovation is needed to develop new models and ways of thinking to unlock open data’s potential in a developing country context. This might take shape in the technical space through new ways to analyse and communicate around data for public benefit. BudgIT in Nigeria is an organisation doing valuable work in this arena. Or, innovation might come in finding new ways to unlock data. Our own Open Data Lab in Jakarta has recently had a positive experience combining open data models with Freedom of Information laws for citizen benefit. Ultimately learning will come through doing, so we hope that more physical and virtual innovation spaces focused on open data will spring up around the continent. We’re actively working towards opening our own Open Data Lab in Africa.


A commitment to track, understand and share progress

As much as we need open data for development, we need open data on open data. We need to build robust quantitative systems to understand progress…and share this data openly. We’ll be continuing to refine and expand our Open Data Barometer for this purpose, and we hope others will join the effort.

As well as the numbers, we also need to undertake more qualitative, thematic research – research that helps to build capacity, and allows all of us involved to share our approaches, our successes, and the lessons learnt along the way. Often insights which spark progress come from hearing how others tackled a thorny issue, rather than through robust quantitative analysis.

In short, we know that open data could play a transformative role in Africa’s future – if the continent’s bold vision can be translated into reality. This will take the right combination of top-down leadership and bottom-up innovation – all supported by robust data. It will be no small undertaking, but the rewards at stake make it worthwhile.

We look forward to seeing many of you in Dar es Salaam. If you’d like to meet up while there, please check out the agenda for when we’ll be leading sessions, come and visit us at the Open Data for Development coalition stand, email us at or tweet us @webfoundation.

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