March 27, 2015

Creating High-Value Data in a Low-Bandwidth Environment

How civil society can nudge government to deliver on Nigeria’s open data promise.

Inspiring commentary about the potential economic and civic benefits of open data is everywhere these days. I’ve seen the momentum building here in Nigeria, especially spurred by the government’s first Open Data Development Initiative, launched in early 2014 and facilitated by The World Bank. Additional investments by international donors have continued supporting the country’s growing community of open data enthusiasts, and the frequency of data-related workshops and hackathons has jumped from virtually zero to periodic events in Lagos, Abuja, Benin, and more.

But there’s a major roadblock to the realization of many open data initiatives in Nigeria: A dearth of high-value data.

There is no single definition of “high-value data,” but roughly, it’s information that makes government spending, enforcement, policy, or other practices transparent and responsive.  Since responsiveness is one of the most important goals of open data, citizens largely define the “value” of any given data. As a good rule of thumb: If citizens aren’t convinced, the data isn’t high value.

Through open data events, often targeting civil society and other “demand-side” players, funders hope to catalyze the development of profitable, data-driven civic apps. But we, the practitioners on the ground, often cannot find the up-to-date, trustworthy data needed to create useful applications for journalism, advocacy, or development.

When Data Breeds Mistrust

Realizing the lofty visions of open data is difficult no matter where you are, but it’s especially hard in a place like Nigeria: home to a nascent open source community, with a highly-politicized election happening tomorrow after a six-week postponement, and where government statistics suggest as few as five percent of the population consistently accesses the Internet. The large, information-rich datasets that traditionally comprise “open data,” often created by governments, are few and far between in Nigeria. Despite the government’s efforts, many datasets that do exist are irrelevant, outdated, incomplete, or mistrusted by citizens.

I witnessed an illustration of this problem after a high-profile model school construction initiative launched in Rivers State. With the school projects nearing completion, the state Ministry of Education set out to share the results through a public website, showing how many model schools had been build to impressive international standards. But many people were suspicious. One local advocacy organization, the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform, questioned how many of the schools had actually been built to specification, and were in use. Rather than increasing transparency as intended, the website threatened to exacerbate mistrust between government and citizens.

From Creating Data to Opening Communication

In partnership with The World Bank, Reboot supported the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform to go into the field and gather a new set of high-value data, and in doing so, open a channel of civic discourse with the Ministry of Education.

Using Formhub, an Android phone-based data collection tool, we investigated a representative sample of the more than 200 public primary school construction projects in five Local Government Areas. Surveyors visited school locations and asked basic questions about each, starting with whether or not the school actually existed. They also collected data also on the quality of construction (such as the condition of the roof) and the local community (such as whether it was rural or urban).

Despite a history of antagonism with the Ministry of Education, the advocacy group was able to use the new, accurate, up-to-date dataset to engage government officials in a constructive way, increasing their voice in decisions about education spending. With support from Reboot (you can read a case study of our year-long engagement here), the organization synthesized their experiences in the field into valuable insights, offering compelling results to state decision-makers. For example, they were able to discuss not only whether the schools were built as planned, but whether trust in the government had shifted as a result.

The Ministry was impressed, and the project was the start of an ongoing conversation about the allocation of public resources. By facilitating productive communication between citizens and their government, this project made open government data matter. Our partners managed to deliver on the promise of open data despite the initial lack of high-value data.

A Free, Open-Source Data Collection Tool

The data collection tool itself was one key to the project’s success. Formhub was a good choice given the constraints of field work in Rivers State. Most critically, Formhub doesn’t require a consistent Internet connection; the data is stored locally and uploaded the next time a connection is made. The app is designed to digitize data at the point of collection, which is when it’s most likely to be accurate. It also means that surveyors feel more responsibility for data quality, as opposed to past approaches, which relied on answers written on sheets of paper and handed off (along with half of the responsibility and most of the ownership) for data entry by someone else. When surveyors have final say over the entered data, they are also better data collectors, able to think critically about the use of the data they collect.

Formhub might be a good fit for other service monitoring or advocacy projects: A project of the Modi Research Group at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Formhub was developed for use in the field here in Nigeria, in a way that very much reflects Reboot’s own values: It was designed iteratively, for usage specifically in resource-constrained environments. There’s also a strong developer community around the open source tool, including people who are eager to give tips on survey design.

Formhub’s continued development and applications are exciting; just recently, the Nigerian Office for Millenium Development Goals launched a website to capture and display data showing Nigeria’s progress toward achieving development goals at the nation, region, and state-level. Browsing through the site shows the full extent of the tool’s capabilities.

Moving Forward: Build Demand for Better Data

The Millenium Development Goals website is a solid step toward generating high-value data. However, it remains to be seen whether the government has the resources to continue updating and maintaining the dataset.

As Nigeria continues to build its national open data movement, it’s vital to recognize that “open data” will never be a one-size-fits-all solution. And as the international development community plans for “demand-side” workshops for training civil society and journalists on how to use open data, we should start by understanding how they are using data now—or not—and why.

Civil society and journalists play an essential role in raising data standards. The Rivers State model school example shows that service monitoring projects can raise the bar for higher-quality, more relevant data, even where the relationship between government and civil society is characterized by mistrust, and initial data is flawed. If we focus on data as a means to encourage constructive dialogue with government officials, each step we take can bring us closer to a truly open data culture at the national level.

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A version of this article appeared on the Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Voices blog on April 13, 2015.

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