By Elly Okutoyi
For the past four months (March- July2013)iHub Research has been conducting a study on the emerging impacts of open data technology applications on grassroots communities. This research work is part of an ongoing two-year study funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) (through grant 107075) and is managed by the World Wide Web Foundation.
We have done in-depth literature review focusing on existing literature on this subject in order to draw an accurate contextual framework –political, legal, technical and social contexts - for open data in Kenya and a stakeholder analysis on all the actors in the local open data ecosystem. Results of this contextual analysis will be published in subsequent blog posts. Concurrent to this literature review, we held interviews with developers of open data apps including the Code4Kenya team and developers of community applications pulling data from the Open Data portal. With the research study concentrating on three main areas of Health, Water and Education, we interviewed community developers with applications addressing issues in these thematic areas.
Finding 1: Most of the applications built on the Open Data platform did not necessarily have citizens as the primary target users, but rather the Kenyan government, who in fact is the same source of the data!
Majority of the application owners interviewed felt that the government through its ministries, non-governmental organizations working in these sectors, international bodies and businesses were best fit for the consumption of open data. The developers perceived most of the data provided on the platform to be high-level datasets - for example GDP growth, diseases prevalence, poverty rates, county expenditure etc. - whose impact, they said, could not be felt immediately at grassroots levels by solely building citizen-facing applications. They, therefore, opted to correlate different datasets provided on the Open Data platform and simplify through various visualization methods like interactive maps and graphs. They then hoped to present the new information to the government to use in making decisions pertaining to the services mostly needed by the citizens.
“Our main objective … was to try and find out if the problems faced in the Kenyan health sector can be solved using data correlation and visualization, so that we don’t just talk about building more hospitals and employing more doctors (yet the problem can be solved through analysis of the data and finding other root causes of diseases) in a particular area,” said one respondent who has built a health data visualization platform.
In terms of direct impact to grassroots communities, most developers said that their main objective was to demystify data to citizens. Their applications were designed in a way that would make the ordinary citizen with no formal training in data analysis appreciate data and, in the process, enable them to make informed decisions.
The Code4Kenya program, on the other hand, seems to have concentrated on building citizen-facing applications, as evidenced from their four primary applications. One of their key objectives when building these applications was to increase open data consumption by citizens through relevant and accessible technologies. Interviews with both fellows and host organizations in this program revealed that citizens were their main focus, such as The Star Health, a platform that provides relevant health information in Kenya.
Finding 2: There is low awareness of existence of open data apps by target users as most developers simply launched their applications online, both on web and mobile platforms, without any other additional publicity initiatives.
Few application developers had participated in Open Data conferences where they talked about their applications. However, this has not been an effective method of increasing public awareness of existence of their applications. A quick analysis of the different application dashboards also indicates general low usage. In order to increase the usage, and ultimately the impact of open data applications, the techies and developers need to carry out more awareness initiatives directed at their end users, including advertising and marketing in various public forums and media.
With these findings as a basis, iHub Research then conducted a baseline field research with grassroots communities to investigate their current level of awareness of open data and the perceived impacts on their livelihoods. Part II of this post will detail results from this survey.