Bridging Kenya’s Data Divide

How Africa’s tech leader made it from PDFs to paperless.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University. 

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University. 

On July 8, 2011, President Mwai Kibaki officially launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative at a public event attended by more than 3,000 people. The new Internet portal compiled previously scattered or hard-to-access government information and made it available to the public for free. 

Kenya launched its initiative at a time when a number of countries were also putting government information online. The United States led the global open data movement, launching its site in 2009. Britain’s official data site went online a year later. Within three years, 31 countries — including Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Moldova, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay — had created similar portals. Multilateral organizations embraced the concept as well; The World Bank inaugurated its own open data website in 2010. 

Kenya’s Open Data Initiative was an important milestone for the country. In the past, citizens had found it difficult to obtain reliable information from the government. During President Daniel arap Moi’s tenure (1978 – 2002), the government restricted the free flow of information and clamped tight restrictions on Kenya’s few private radio and television networks. In addition to stifling the media, the Moi government barred civil servants from sharing data outside government. The Official Secrets Act, a holdover from Kenya’s colonial era, gave the government the ostensible authority to withhold data. 

When President Kibaki took office in 2002, he did not earmark freedom of information as a high priority; he was instead primarily concerned with job growth. The first three years of his tenure witnessed few advances for open data. Entrenched in a silo mentality, civil servants continued to guard their information. Citizens could buy official reports from the government printing office, but it was a costly and inconvenient process. Other information was available only through appeal to the permanent secretaries who headed ministries. The system created ample opportunities for mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, and bribery. 

When Bitange Ndemo joined Kibaki’s Cabinet as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications in 2005, he was fully aware of the challenges of accessing government data. As a senior lecturer and head of research and consultancy at the University of Nairobi’s faculty of commerce, Ndemo had firsthand knowledge of the difficulty in securing data for academic research. "Getting information from the government was a big problem when you did research from the outside," he recalled. "For example, one area that I really wanted to study was the reasons for the collapse of firms in Kenya. But I couldn’t get the information. And I certainly couldn’t get several years’ worth of information."

Kibaki’s government did make incremental moves to improve the availability of information. A significant step came in 2006, when the administration enacted a structural reform to facilitate streamlined access to information. It created the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), replacing the outdated and ineffective Central Bureau of Statistics. The new bureau assumed responsibility for gathering, storing, and analyzing government information, as well as publishing and disseminating the data for public use. 

For Kenya’s citizens, however, complete government data remained elusive. Although the KNBS regularly updated its website with the monthly consumer price index, quarterly gross domestic product aggregates, and basic economic indicators such as coffee or tea prices, other statistics were limited to summaries in PDF files. It published paper copies of some of the information in the forms of books and reports, selling them for small fees. 

The government’s moderate efforts to widen information access contrasted with the technological explosion that took place in Kenya at the same time. Information and communications technology (ICT) became Kenya’s fastest-growing sector, thanks largely to deregulation and privatization following years of government monopoly. After 2000, the sector grew at an average rate of 20 percent annually and contributed an average of 1 percentage point to Kenya’s gross domestic product.

Pointing to the fast-growing ICT sector, Kenya’s technology community started clamoring for easier access to government information. It claimed that access to government data could help reduce waste, spur development of mobile or Web applications, and promote technology start-ups. Athman Mohamed, director at Trademark East Africa, an agency that promotes regional trade, offered transportation as an example. "Up to 40 percent of the cost of anything in a landlocked country is due to transportation," he said. "You can have a direct impact on the lives [of people] if you can use data to save a day here and there [on goods being transported]." 

The ICT community argued that the new software applications entrepreneurs would create using open data would help encourage innovation and fuel growth. Al Kags, an entrepreneur and founder of the Open Institute, an organization dedicated to open data and open governments, said, "A lot of young people are driven by innovation. They will develop applications if you provide them with data. And they will provide important service to others." For instance, in 2007 – 08, developers had created the Ushahidi platform that helped monitor incidents of violence following Kenya’s 2007 elections. It used crowd sourcing, an online tool that rapidly collected and disseminated data from contributors, to track the violence. 

Kenyans could point to another recent example. In 2007, cellular company Safaricom launched M-PESA, a service that enabled subscribers to pay bills and transfer money by using their cell phones. In 2011 – 12, the company earned 16.9 billion Kenyan shillings ($200 million) in revenues from M-PESA alone, with 14.9 million users in a country of 43 million. 

Open data advocates found a champion in Ndemo. Soon after assuming office, Ndemo had identified five priorities for the ICT sector: infrastructure through fiber cables, content and application development, public-private partnerships, capacity building, and employment. The need for open data cut through the last four. 

Early in his tenure, Ndemo looked to build relationships that would be conducive to innovation. He allied himself closely with the minister of information and communications, Mutahi Kagwe, who helped him gain the president’s support. Ndemo also developed professional relationships and coalitions by reaching out to ICT people in the private sector. In 2007, he created an ICT Board, a state corporation for implementing the ministry’s policies and projects. "In government, you don’t get a choice of people you work with," he said. "So, we actually created a small, semiautonomous agency called the ICT Board to quickly implement some of the programs we had started." 

By 2009, Ndemo had developed a track record for carrying out successful reforms by liberalizing the telecommunications sector, supporting M-PESA, and helping bring high-speed fiber-optic cables to Kenya. Tackling the thorny issue of open data was a logical next step. 

Ndemo knew that the success of open data reforms would hinge largely on approvals from ministries to release data through a public website; obtaining such approvals would be costly in terms of time and energy. 

In early 2011, Ndemo made a strategic decision. He opted to launch the government’s open data site with information that was already in the public domain, but not yet broadly available or in a usable form. In doing so, he sidestepped the need to confront government agencies about their release of nonpublic information. As the legislative backbone of his efforts, Ndemo pointed to the 2010 constitution, which called for the government to "publish and publicize any important information affecting the nation." 

Although Ndemo’s open data initiative operated within existing parameters, he still found it difficult to loosen ministries’ tight grip on government information. Needing high-level backing, he made his case during a personal visit with President Kibaki in June 2011. "I went to the president and told him we have a lot of data in government, which we can use and convert into businesses for the youth and for more employment," Ndemo said. "He is an economist, and he understood all this very quickly." Kibaki gave his blessing to the open data project and accepted Ndemo’s invitation to preside at a launch event a few weeks later. 

The tight timeline put pressure on Ndemo to move quickly but also worked in his favor. Before approaching the president, Ndemo had met with planning, finance, health, and education officials to get data or secure permission for using data the officials had already supplied to the World Bank. 

To expedite the data-gathering process and lessen the workload on ministries, Ndemo accepted data in any format, printed or digital. Paul Kukubo, chief executive officer of the ICT Board explained, "The idea was that any data is good. We will do the hard work in making that data relevant and cleaning it on our end." 

Ndemo formed a task force of 23 members comprising public officials, developers, and World Bank data experts. The group had teams responsible for (1) solving technical and usability issues, and getting the website up and running; (2) cleaning and formatting data for presentation on the site; (3) addressing legal and policy matters, including terms and conditions for data usage; and (4) organizing the launch-day event. The task force, especially the data team, received technical support from data experts at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.. 

The task force settled a number of strategic questions at its first meeting. The team would focus on data visualization — visual representation of information through graphs, maps, applications, and easily downloadable files — instead of just posting PDF files or tables on the website. It also decided to develop applications to showcase how the data could be used. For building the actual portal, Ndemo and other team members agreed to contract with an outside firm to secure the software platform, and customize it for Kenya’s needs. 

Starting on June 17, 2011, the four teams began work in earnest. The group worked under extreme pressure. Mohamed of Trademark East Africa, who led the technical team, said, "The project management was minute to minute. There was no detailed plan apart from the overall plan, which was [that] we needed to do this by this day." The team did not have time to write out technical documents or specifications. 

Coordination was important, especially between the technical team and the data team. For instance, a technical team member who found missing or faulty data would contact the data group to remedy the error, no matter how small the mistake. That simple step ensured quality and accountability. To vet software applications before the launch, the task force set up a peer review procedure. For instance, when Erik Hersman, founder of the software developer community iHub and a member of the task force, submitted an application, the technical team had two days to respond with comments. Mohamed said, "We had to enforce quality control [and] didn’t want delays, because the president [was coming to the launch]." 

Not surprisingly, agencies with national security concerns were wary of the open data concept. With two days left before the launch, President Kibaki summoned Ndemo to his office. Several ministers, including the minister for internal security, had expressed concerns about the Kenya Open Data Initiative, comparing it to WikiLeaks. The president’s office was poised to cancel the portal. 

At a July 7 meeting, the day before the proposed public launch, Ndemo and other task force members assured the president and cabinet ministers that the initiative was controlled locally and that the data was already in the public domain — in electronic or paper format. The 20-minute meeting turned into a two-hour session as task force members demonstrated through charts and graphs how visualizing open data could help allocate resources. Ndemo noted that the group present was particularly interested in ways that open data could spur employment. Kibaki assured Ndemo that he would inaugurate the portal the next day.                                                        

On July 8, 2011, Kibaki officially launched the site, which showcased 200 data sets organized into six categories: education, energy, health, population, poverty, and water and sanitation. The data included the 2009 census; seven years of detailed government expenditure data, including national and county public expenditure; national budgets; the 2005 household income survey; and information on health care and education. 

Kenya’s portal made international headlines and lit up the blogosphere. Newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times carried articles about the site. The Star, a national Kenyan newspaper, rated it number one in a list of "Kenya’s biggest ICT stories of 2011." 

Proponents lauded the portal as a giant step forward for Kenya, but some observers were less effusive. They insisted that the project’s value ultimately depended on citizen use. Davis Adieno, former national coordinator at the National Taxpayers Association, a government accountability organization, commented on the disparity between the praise the portal received and its actual usage: "It is being celebrated internationally, but very few Kenyans know about the portal or what it is about." In 2012, a year after the launch, the media, and the public had not used the open data portal as widely as proponents had anticipated. As Ndemo related, "Right now, we have dealt with just the supply side of data. The challenge now is to build the demand side of data." 

The lack of Internet availability outside Kenya’s major cities sharply curtailed the number of citizens who could use the new website. In 2012, only 6.5 million Kenyans out of a population of 43 million subscribed to an Internet connection, although 11.8 million had access to the Internet. But about 29.2 million people had mobile phones, with 98.8 percent of total Internet subscriptions through mobile phones — one reason the ministry planned to encourage software developers to focus on phone applications that could reach a wider population. 

A second challenge was timeliness. Ndemo related that after launch, "The pressure I have now is the need for real-time data." Hersman of iHub underscored the issue, asking, "How can we get updated data and engage ordinary people to make their lives better and talk about services?" An important ally in facilitating data flow was the KNBS. The bureau was Kenya’s largest repository of government data. Crucially, it had staff in key ministries to gather data or monitor data collection. Ndemo tapped into this expertise, putting in place a plan to allocate responsibility for portal updates to the KNBS, while the ICT Board would continue to project-manage the site. 

A third challenge arose from the muted reception the portal received within government. Sharing of government data required a greater commitment on the part of the government and a stronger legislative framework. In 2012, Ndemo and his supporters were still pushing for greater acceptance of the portal across ministries. 

Despite its challenges, the open data portal provided one avenue of access to government information in Kenya. At the time of the initial launch, the portal had 200 data sets. The number stood at 434 in June 2012. The ICT Board reported 50,515 site visits as of June 2012. When the board opened a Twitter account in February 2012, 429 followers started following the portal, which had had 634 tweets by June 2012. It also reported that users had viewed 29,081 data sets and downloaded 2,600 data sets by June 2012. 

The portal promoted Kenya’s reputation as a progressive nation. Kenya was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to launch an open data portal, and the second one on the continent, after Morocco. The portal also facilitated Kenya’s membership in the Open Government Partnership, a global effort by eight founding members — Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, Britain, and the United States — to promote transparency and accountability in government. 

Although several factors contributed to the successful launch of Kenya’s open data portal in 2011, top-level political support and the speed with which Ndemo pushed the portal forward were the two most significant. Ndemo summed up his approach to the reforms: "In government, you seize the moment and the opportunity when you get it. How do you get it? You do the end first, and then you can put the rest in place later. You simply must deal with the why you need something, then think about [the] how later."    

Rushda Majeed is a researcher and consultant focused on institutional and policy reform. Twitter: @RushdaMajeed

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