Back in early 2013 the Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone began a groundbreaking new research project as part of the Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) research network. The project aims to assess the practicality of open data initiatives in post-conflict Sierra Leone and is one of 17 case studies in developing countries commissioned by the World Wide Web Foundation through a research grant from Canada’s International Development and Research Centre. The focus of the overall ODDC project has been on building a compendium of evidence on emerging open data impacts in developing countries. But in Sierra Leone it has also provided the opportunity for a major breakthrough in recognition of open data and its related issues in a country that which only knows Freedom Of Information as a tool of government openness.
The initial target of the SDI research was the use of open data at a local government level to enhance transparency and accountability by making information available on a proactive basis. The second strand of the research investigates how open data has been used in practical ways in the extractive sectors, particularly so the extractive industry transparency initiatives. The third, but crucial, area of focus has been on public finance management, which includes both donor driven reforms, and reforms led by the government of Sierra Leone.
During the ODDC research period, Sierra Leone passed the Right to Access Information Law in October 2013, adding to the many transparency tools the country has entrenched within its legal framework. Two days later, Sierra Leone was accepted into the elite Open Government Partnership (OGP) democracy club. The OGP asks countries to develop their own action plans, setting out ambitious plans to increase citizen engagement, transparency and accountability and improved public service delivery.
Open data policies and practice have been some of the most popular commitments made in OGP country action plans, framed as a means of enhancing citizen’s informed engagement with policies and public officials. So, as a new member of the OGP Sierra Leone will be encouraged to think about open data policies. Pro-active publication of information is the fundamental basis for open data, and is a principle that the Freedom Of Information campaign in Sierra Leone is solidly rooted on.
In line with the proactive publication principles of open data shared through the OGP, whether advertently or inadvertently, the right to access information law in Sierra Leone provides, in section 8, a long list of information public officials and public authorities should make available proactively. Pursuant to aforementioned section, public authorities should proactively publish the aims and objectives of their institutions, duties and responsibilities of the authority, list of staff members and their functions, telephone directory of the officials, salaries and remuneration of its staff members, annual budget and financial reports, annual narrative reports, contracts and concessions et al.
In essence, the section goes towards legislating the open data principle of proactive publication, without the slightest idea that it was doing so. During one of the post law trainings of information officers of ministries, departments and agencies of government, the ODDC mentor to the Sierra Leone research, Michael Gurstein, quietly mentioned to government right to information focal person the need to create a division within the ‘information commission’: a division on open data. This was gladly welcomed and was included in the organogram of the prospective as one function of one of the five commissioners. Building on the foundation of proactive publication, this commissioner could support Sierra Leone to also look at making sure proactively published information is made re-usable, shared as structured data whenever possible.
During the same training, Mr Gurstein also exposed Sierra Leonean public information officers to the fundamental definition of open data and highlighted the differences between access to information and open data. Timely intervention and clarification of the two different, but related, concepts was appreciated by participants at the meeting. It also diffused the tensions and confusions of over bombarding the two concepts on the people of Sierra Leone.
As SDI concludes the ODDC research, Sierra Leone is witnessing a new drive to institute open data in governance to compliment the right to access information law. The OGP process has underscored open data as a major requirement and building block for Sierra Leone to get to the standardized degree of openness required for OGP membership. The World Bank has jumped on the bandwagon and has expressed interest in Sierra Leone under the Open Aid Partnership to collect reliable data and put them out in the pubic domain. The right to access information law entrenched all in the legal framework.
In my humble opinion, I believe that these developments indicate that Sierra Leone is the country to watch, and is steadily marching to open up its system to citizens through the right to access information law and open data principles.. Watch out for the research findings on how access to information is now being practiced in local government, in the extractive industry transparency initiative and in public finance management, and on the opportunities to build on existing practices to deliver a model of open data that will work for Sierra Leone.
Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai is the executive director of Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone (SDI) , the civil society organization that championed the FOI bill into law and led the campaign for ten years. He is always the lead researcher for the ODDC research in Sierra Leone led by SDI. He is a lawyer by profession, and has been a transparency and accountability activist for the past ten years. Contact: email@example.com