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Open Government Data for Effective Public Participation: Findings of a Case Study Research Investigating The Kenya's Open Data Initiative in Urban Slums and Rural Settlements

TitleOpen Government Data for Effective Public Participation: Findings of a Case Study Research Investigating The Kenya's Open Data Initiative in Urban Slums and Rural Settlements
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsChiliswa, Zacharia
InstitutionJesuit Hakiani Center
CityNairobi, Kenya

In 2013, the year that Kenya Celebrated 50 years of independence, a new constitution came into force, including fundamental principles focussed on public participation and the promotion of a more open society. Article 35 of the Bill of Rights emphasises that every citizen has a right to information held by the state, challenging a long established culture of government secrecy. Against this background, the Jesuit Hakimani Centre sought to explore the landscape of open data in light of the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) launched in 2011, and to investigate the impact it is having in lives of Kenyan people, particularly those in marginalised area.

The study, conducted in two urban slums in the Counties of Nairobi and Mombasa and a rural settlement in Isiolo County, employed quantitative and qualitative research techniques, including focus groups, questionnaire and interviews designed to assess awareness and use of KODI data, and to understand the ways in which citizens seek out, access, use, and place trust in, government information.

In both Urban and Rural areas, a majority of citizens surveyed had looked for some sort of government data in the last year, although the rate is higher in urban areas (81%) than in rural areas (57%). Access to government information plays an important role in empowering citizens. For example, some interviewees indicated that after accessing information from government, they took up the matters with the relevant authorities. In other cases, they organized discussion fora with the youth on issues related to their future education plans. In both cases, the interviewees noted that the government information they accessed helped them to become more knowledgeable and as a result to make more informed decisions.

However, there are differences between citizens with respect to interest in government data. The study identifies four categories of citizen relationship to open data: (1) citizens unaware of government information and not interested in seeking it; (2) citizens aware of government information, but not using it - from reasons including fear of bureaucracy, a belief that government information is biased, prior experience of non-responsive government agencies, a lack of trust in government data, or a mismatch between the data government provide and the information they need; (3) citizens who know about and use government data, but who do not know if the source was the government data portal or not; and (4) citizens who know about government data and who access it from the opendata.go.ke portal. Examples of data sought by citizens in this last category include statistics fro the national census results on the number of people in their area of residence, information on the allocation of resources to different counties and their development rates, information on health, bursaries fund, and data on high school students’ transition.

Intermediaries are vital to connecting urban slums and rural settlements with government data. However, rather than mediation through ‘apps’ and websites, survey results suggest more attention should be given to existing information intermediaries such as Chief’s Centres, Community Centres and Churches and Mosques. Community Centres, whilst only the source of information for 24% of respondents (behind Chief’s Centres at 53%) appeared to provide the easiest access to information. However, access to data alone is not enough to enable civic participation: citizens need a belief in the quality of the information, and a trust in government responsiveness, and prior experiences often leave citizens sceptical about their ability to create change even when equipped with data.

Local intermediaries are particularly important because citizens know and trust them. However, there are currently few connections between these intermediaries and the new open data sources being made available through KODI, and current capacity building tends to focus on high-tech intermediaries, rather than developing locally appropriate capacity building at the community-level. The right forms of mediation also depend on the data and information in question. Asked about the data they would like to see, citizens report a high demand for budget information. When asked where they want to get this information from, survey respondents prioritised access via Radio and TV (49%), closely followed by the Internet (39%), and with religious centres preferred by just 25%, suggesting citizens are less likely to discuss political issues with religious institutions, even if they may turn to these institutions for access to information on other more practical matters.

At the time of writing the KODI project was widely regarded as stalled, with few recent updates to the datasets hosted on the website. Although there is a constitutional guarantee of access to information, Kenya still lacks a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that can put into practice a citizen right information (and data), supporting both proactive and reactive publication of open data. However, as the new devolved county-level governance structures become embedded under the new constitution there is potential for open data to be revitalised and brought closer to the people. Whether open data should be able ‘bypassing’ established officials and intermediaries and dis-intermediating access to data, or whether it should be implemented in ways that make existing information flows more efficient was hotly debated at the launch of this study - and remains an issue for deeper discussion in Kenya over the coming months.

Short TitleOpen Government Data for Effective Public Participation
Refereed DesignationNon-Refereed