How unlocking open data could transform civil society in Africa

Nefina is a trader at the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, where open data means farmers and buyers can track prices of coffee in real time.  Photo: ONE

Nefina is a trader at the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, where open data means farmers and buyers can track prices of coffee in real time. Photo: ONE

This guest post is by Daniel Ben-Horin, Founder and Chief Instigator of TechSoup, a nonprofit which connects charities and libraries with tech products and services. Africa Vice-President, David Barnard, is a member of ONE’s Africa Policy Advisory Board, and this week is running 213km across Burkina Faso in support of ONE.

Civil society typically lags in terms of technological development. On one level, the reason is obvious. Tech costs money. On a deeper level, the people who work in civil society are dedicating themselves to addressing immediate social problems, often in an environment of pervasive scarcity. It is hard to explore, play with and wax expansive with technology when other issues seem overwhelming.

Social media was a technological ‘leveller’ for civil society and data can be another leveller. Unlike expensive hardware and software, data access is not inherently expensive. Civil society organisations hold data and they have unique insights into the meaning of data. If they can combine their own data and their insights with the skills to find, aggregate, display and generally mash up data, the playing field for activists and social change will look very different indeed.

But we have to make the concept and the practice of data skills compelling and engaging in the civil society context, especially in Africa where so much that should be public isn’t….yet. And where what is public is often extremely challenging to locate and work with.

Data drives not only transparency but economic benefit, as also increasingly acknowledged by ONE. For example, my own organisation, TechSoup Global, is currently exploring the power of data to unlock both social creativity and entrepreneurial vigour in the field of African computer refurbishing. It’s a complex issue with concerns about e-Waste dumping vying with the need to equip the current generation of young Africans with the basic tools of the digital age, all against a backdrop of constantly emerging new techno-options with uncertain ‘delivery timetables’.

So we asked: What if the data pertaining to refurbishment were opened up and visualised? Meaning: The regulatory environment, the sources of used computers, the marketplace for such computers, the number and location and capacity of existing refurbishers, etc. What if we convened – in person and/or virtually – all concerned parties to discuss the possibilities?  What ideas, projects, businesses and policy initiatives might emerge? We hope to find out.

This data-driven approach can be applied across the spectrum of social issues. Technologists are eager to lend their skills. For example, Random Hacks of Kindness, which has placed a great deal of emphasis on integrating subject matter expertise and community input into their hackathon design will, on Dec. 7th and 8th, support 10 hackathons throughout Africa.

Inspired by our interaction with RHOK, TechSoup Global has developed Hacker Helper, a tool to facilitate access to the data sets and other inputs needed by hackers; Our Caravan Studios division has pioneered Generators to specifically address the community input part of the equation.

Organisations like Datakind and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s School of Data are connecting data science to the work of civil society organisations. And the members of Afrilabs, 19 technology and innovation hubs in 13 African countries, constitutes an invaluable human resource throughout the continent.

Can we develop a true dialogue between public-minded data geeks (and other tech innovators) and communities working on social issues? Can the social sector become data agents and not just data points?  A great deal hinges on the answer.