Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Using open data to achieve SDGs

By Greg Odogwu

The Women Environmental Programme (WEP), a non-governmental, non-profit, non-religious and voluntary organization established in 1997 by a group of grassroots women in Nigeria, made history by training about twenty five Nigerian youths on data collection for the purpose of monitoring developmental governance.

The training of data collectors was done under the project “Promoting Transparency and Accountability in Local Government, Through Open Data Collection in Three Area Councils of FCT, Nigeria”.

The project, which is being implemented by WEP in collaboration with the National Bureau Statistics (NBS), with support from Open Knowledge Foundation, under the African Open Data Collaboration Fund (AODCF), aims at determining the status of basic amenities, creating awareness on fiscal activities of Area Councils and eliciting interest of the citizenry to participate effectively in the development of their communities.

To understand the significance of this project, one must look at current socio-political environment in most developing countries. Is it not baffling that with the perennial political mantra of “delivering the dividends of democracy” citizens at grassroots are yet to have concrete testimony of these purported interventions?

For instance, during the Nigeria’s Presidential Summit on the defunct Millennium Development Goals, all the state governments’ representatives at the event were reeling out data on the projects they had undertaken and the lives they were touching.

Yet, when hard facts came out on the achievement of the MDGs, it was evident that Nigeria scored abysmal low points.

And this situation raises two questions: Given that most of the data on development process comes from the international community, are these statistics to be trusted? And then, if the government officials are so certain that they have affected the lives of the ordinary citizens, how did they scientifically ascertain the impact of their projects on the grassroots communities whom they were meant to represent and oversee?

The answer is manifest in the fact that most poor countries especially in Africa have no accurate way of gathering data from the grassroots communities. And, ironically, the ones that come back to us from our foreign development partners were as a result of foreign-sponsored data collection projects, which are arguably inefficient, because of overdependence on random sampling and other haphazard methodologies.

This is the reason why up to this moment, there are still ongoing debates about the exact percentages of compliance as regards the achievement of the MDGs. The statistics and facts concerning its success are still iffy.
And this is exactly the reason why the world’s governments decided that the current Sustainable Development Goals should toe a different line of strategy. When they convened in July 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to agree on a framework for financing the new SDGs, it was agreed that there would be a “key window of opportunity to improve the existing, haphazard approach to data collection and reporting”.

Following the progress  made under the MDGs, which guided global development efforts in the years 2000 to 2015, the world was determined that the SDGs for the period 2016 to 2030 will continue to fight against extreme poverty, but will add the challenges of ensuring more equitable development and environmental sustainability.

Crucial to their success, therefore, will be strong government systems and in particular strong statistical systems that can measure and incentivize progress across the goals.

WEP, in line with this new paradigm is working with Nigeria’s key statistical institution, the NBS.

But most importantly, the NGO has adopted the open data initiative, and is partnering with the foremost open data organization under African Open Data Collaboration Fund.

WEP’s Executive Director, Priscilla Achakpa, revealed that because of Africa’s peculiar data challenge, the African regional platform during the drafting of the SDGs had served as midwife for the AODCF.

According to, open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike. The data must be available as a whole, and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably by downloading over the internet.

The data must be provided under terms that permit re-use and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets. And, everyone must be able to use, re-use and redistribute – there should be no discrimination against fields of endeavor or against persons or groups. For example, ‘non-commercial’ restrictions that would prevent ‘commercial’ use, or restrictions of use for certain purposes (e.g. only in education), are not allowed.

Interestingly, I see a new vista of youth participation in government, if only the African youth can catch the vision of this evolving data revolution.

If the dream of WEP and other similar organizations that are set to train our youths come to reality, then we can rest assured that a new day has come in grassroots politics and in general political participation.

I see that with open data internalized, the days of “political abracadabra” are numbered. No more will politicians stay inside their campaign offices and manufacture data of nonexistent community projects with which to lie and bamboozle the uninformed electorates. Right in the midst of their campaign crowd will be youths armed with raw data from the field – statistics that have been professionally and scientifically generated to track governance services and infrastructure.

On that day, no politician can “lie” to any constituent anymore; and no government official can “obfuscate” our international development partners, who are frustrated by paucity of data and transparent governance which inhibit their intervention efforts.

And it is a gladdening development that some youths are catching the vision; and when they reach the critical mass, they will lift the nation into a new socio-political paradigm.

Icheen Ronald Adue, a data collection trainee said his vision of joining the project was “To bring out the areas government has turned a blind eye to. There are many NGOs but they are doing little to show impact on the people.”

While Ogechi Amaram, another trainee, said “I love working with people at the grassroots. So when I saw this project, I said, yes this is it. This is the way to give a voice to the voiceless.”

Achakpa, while commenting on the dynamic of the data collection training, expressed satisfaction that there was light at the end of the tunnel, because when WEP advertised the programme via its digital platforms, more than 300 youths expressed interest to participate, but unfortunately the organization had to choose only 25.

“It is sad that today, the young people have become worse sycophants than the elders. The politicians deceive them with crumbs. But they do not know that with accurate data on their hand, they will change the game, and decide the track of governance. I tell these lucky youths we are training: you will train others, you will monitor the SDGs. Facts and statistics are needed to know when we have met the current SDGs,” she said.

Therefore, we all must lend our voices to that of the United Nations in its admonition that both donors and recipient countries must look to join the data revolution. The unprecedented rate of innovation in data collection techniques and technologies and the capacity to distribute data widely and freely has expanded the horizon of possibility. The adoption of the SDGs presents a strategic opportunity to build on the momentum of the data revolution and demonstrate the centrality of data for development.

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