Nairobi — President Mwai Kibaki on Friday launched a key website making Kenya the first country in sub Saharan Africa to offer loads of government data to its citizens.
Citizens can now access data and participate in constitutional implementation process as well as hold the government accountable, President Kibaki said.
The government has released several large datasets, including the national census and statistics on government spending at national and county level to enhance transparency in governance and access to information.
The data presented in user-friendly format is now available online via an open data portal (www.opendata.go.ke).
Currently much of the public data is in hard copy and other static formats that make their use close to impossible.
Worse still, to access such data one has to seek clearance from authorities in relevant ministries or purchase it from the Government printer after going through a bureaucratic clearance process.
In an interview with Nation, Dr Ndemo said the website will be one of the first and largest government data portals in sub-Saharan Africa.
"With the open data portal, such obstacles will be a thing of the past. Information is power and we are aiming to empower citizens by enhancing their access to usable data that was not accessible easily to the public," said Ministry of Information Permanent Secretary, Dr Bitange Ndemo.
"For the first time, Kenyans will have information about their community at their fingertips allowing them to make informed decisions at a personal level--currently most decisions people make are not scientific since they are not based on data yet data is available but inaccessible," he added.
The PS said the portal is part of an initiative of pushing local content to the Internet and to offer over 70,000 Kenyans who graduate from Kenyan colleges annually to manipulate the data for beneficial use.
"By creating a knowledge society, you create a knowledge economy...we do not want to lag behind as we watch other countries releasing data to their people for profitable use...we have not even scratched the surface in terms of data, we are working on data centres, which was our last piece of infrastructure development," he said.
The information on the portal is from published government data available from the ministries of Finance, Planning, Local Government, Health, Education and the Kenya National Bureaus of Statistics.
According to Dr Ndemo, much of this information is also available at the World Bank and the United Nations thus it beats logic why it has not been openly availed to citizens.
Dr Ndemo said globally, governments are adopting the concept of open data to reap benefits of a more informed citizenry.
This, he said, would deter public servants and politicians from vices such as fraud that thrive in situations where secrecy and monopoly of information abounds.
Dr Ndemo said data users will be able to create maps and other visualizations and directly download underlying data for their own uses.
"Data is not information until it is converted to make sense to users...that is what we have done at the portal," Dr Nemo said.
This has never happened before and it welcomes an era of openness where the citizen will be empowered to put leaders to account in the use and distribution of public resources.
For instance it will now be near impossible to misuse public funds since all records pertaining spending shall be available online for citizens to scrutinise and ascertain if 'what is on the paper tallies with what is on the ground'.
For decades, it has been the practice of some unscrupulous government officials to misuse public funds and misinform that the money has been spent to implement 'non-existent' projects.
With the open data portal, constituents will track monies assigned on projects and point out discrepancies between expenditure reports and reality at the grassroot.
Dr Ndemo said the Ministry of Information and Communications will give grants to support the development of innovative high-impact web and mobile applications to ensure useful and relevant applications are built.
Through the Kenya ICT Board, the Ministry will make a Call for Proposals for ideas on how to use government data.
The Call for Proposals is open from July 8 - August 8; the best proposals will receive $50,000 each (for companies) and $10,000 (for teams and individuals). At least 30 grants will be awarded in 2011.
The portal is managed by the Kenya ICT Board in partnership with the World Bank and Socrata, a US-based developer and provider of Open Data Services, that enable federal, state, and local governments to improve the reach, usability and social utility of their public information assets.
Private web and content developers also played part in setting up the portal.
Media Council of Kenya Chairman Levi Obonyo said the government's move portends well for Kenya in general but will particularly boost the work of the media industry.
"It means that journalists will be able to access a lot of information that they need for their work easily unlike previously. Since media plays the watchdog role this is very facilitative in that function and I think most journalists will or should welcome this launch," said Mr Obonyo.
Mr Obonyo said the new constitution provides for expanded freedom to information access but much needs to be done to ensure the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI), which is in the pipeline, becomes law.
"With the new constitution there is obviously a greater opening and emerging forthrightness in providing information. But this culture is not yet entrenched," said Mr Obonyo.
Mr Obonyo said certain sectors of the civil service are yet to fully embrace the spirit of openness.
"...We should not look only at the civil service. Withholding information takes place both in the public and private sector and both sectors need as much openness as this is is good for the society," he said.
However, Dr Ndemo said the FOI bill is currently at the cabinet level before it goes to Parliament for debate.
According to Michael Murungi, an ICT legal expert, the new constitution obliges government and Parliament to ensure free flow of information and the FOI will outline the processes to be followed to achieve the objective.
"Democracy dies behind closed doors. This historic event marks the end of a siri kali (top secret) era constructed on a colonial relic that founded, facilitated and perpetuated a hitherto information access caste society," argues Alex Gakuru, Kenya ICT Consumers Association chairman.
Mr Gakuru says top echelons in the government thrived on concealing information secretly for personal gains making the public lose faith in political leaders and public institutions.
"The power class had sanitised corruption as 'standard operating procedure' ridiculed and punished honest officials who acted in public interest ... one may be excused for reading this government openness ceremony as a major step in reclaiming our long lost nationalvalues direction with far reaching social transformation implications," said Mr Gakuru.
Echoing Mr Obonyo's sentiments, Mr Gakuru said journalists' agenda-setting stories will be based on solid official data and information translating to improved media professionalism and reduced speculative reporting due to insufficient information.
"Public Servants will henceforth live in glass houses, everything they do will be seen, everything they say will be heard and every expenditure scrutinised," said Mr Gakuru.
World Bank Communications Officer, Mr Peter Warutere, said data availability to the public is key for development and building a knowledge economy.
"It is important that you provide the right data and it must be in the right format. This is the starting step of a long journey to creating a knowledge based economy," said Mr Warutere.