Catalyzing the growth of the Kenya tech community

Central role of data in devolution

By Leo Mutuku
iHub Research
  Published 22 Oct 2013
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Central role of data in devolution

As we implement the new constitution, rural areas are coming more into focus and devolved government functions are scrambling to gain prominence and make revenue from within the counties. As a result, we are seeing five star hotels, roads and new cities being built in areas we would never previously have imagined. However, we can’t speak of infrastructure development and not think of technology.

Over the past years, iHub Research has conducted several research studies in rural Kenya/Africa to understand the use of and the potential of technology in these areas. The penetration of ICTs in several African countries has closely followed the path of the fiber optics network. Looking at a map of Africa, you realize that this does not cover much of the surface area of the vast continent. However, what is most interesting is that most (76%, as at 2012) of the African population is at least covered by a mobile signal.

Using this as a baseline, it is not an impossible dream to see increased uptake of technology in rural areas. With the basic infrastructure in place, we just need people innovating on it. Our government has made it clear that it has a key focus on digitizing processes. So this is the situation: we have new counties, each with new systems of administration at local levels and we are digitizing these administrative functions. What is the ultimate result of this? An explosion of data produced in Kenya.

New counties = new forms of digital administration processes = new data!

The governments and any other opportunists jumping on the ‘let’s develop our county’ bandwagon will amass more data than ever before, and at a more granular level, if this digital strategy is implemented properly. Data plays a central role in development and governance, as it is the basis for which key planning decisions are made and provides grounds for transparency, accountability and evidence-based demand for services. With the new devolved functions, the role of data will become especially critical for several reasons.

Back to the new counties equations:

New counties = new forms of administration = new budgets and new expenses.

A bloated system -as the devolved administrative units are becoming- demands a bludgeoning burgeoning budget and an increased tax burden to the citizen that is barely sustainable. It is becoming paramount to keep the administration transparent and accountable. I’d be a happier citizen if I could trace all my tax shillings and be assured that they are being channeled correctly. I’d be happiest, if I was invited through participatory budgeting to determine how these tax shillings are spent.

The county governments as well, will need to effectively monitor the progress and hopefully, the impact of development projects in the rural areas to ensure that they are maximizing on the allocated resources to generate revenue and enhance service delivery to their citizens. Investors and business entities would like to capitalize on market opportunities in the different sectors/industries in rural Kenya, and to analyze the cost of doing business in the different counties as well. By collecting data that is more granular than the nation level provides for concentrated planning efforts within the counties.

Typically, access to government data and, more generally, government information is still a large problem for us despite noble efforts by national government to open up its data. However, with the (and here I cross my fingers tightly in anticipation) passing of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill, access to public government data will be enshrined in law, standardizing the formats in which it is released and how citizens engage with this data.

Data, though, is just data and the real value from data is derived by manipulating it. This presents a large commercial opportunity to technology companies to build tools and services on this data. We have not realized the same levels of success as our western counterparts when it comes to data apps, but with a little more training, an inquisitive outlook and the right datasets, we will see new companies thriving on data. There is an immense market opportunity to also work with civil society organizations to analyze and visualize these datasets, thus keeping the various county governments on their toes.

Government data though, does not present the only golden opportunities for tech companies that are intent on expanding operations beyond Nairobi. I like to give examples of Ma3Route, M-farm and Abacus. These are scalable data companies that are generating their own datasets for use in their different focus industries, and not bound by Nairobi’s borders.

This month, we, as iHub Research, launched our new data science and visualization lab. Our mandate is to innovate on the data science process – data collection, storage, management and manipulation – and surface new stories from data. We do not just want to tell stories from Nairobi, but even beyond: we want to shed light on the different opportunities we can exploit in the counties. We aim, through our training programs and consultancies, to inculcate a data culture for decision making as part of new business models for entrepreneurs and local governments, and to lead the movement of the effective use of technology and data beyond Nairobi’s borders.

 

Leonida Mutuku is a research manager at iHub Research. She is the lead on the new Data Science and Visualization Lab and Market Research at iHub Research. Leo is passionate about building capacity to work with data and to use data science for informed decision-making. An actuary by training, Leo has a background in conducting both academic and financial quantitative research. Leo has worked in various capacities at Family Bank and Barclays Bank and is experienced in research design, data analysis, and creative visualization of data. She works closely with tech start-ups, has profiled several upcoming and established entrepreneurs, and published academic papers. She also blogs occasionally.

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