Written by Sara Hoenes


On July 5, Accountability Lab and the Center for International and Private Enterprise (CIPE) hosted the second #HackCorruption virtual roundtable event. Accountability Lab South Africa’s Country Director, Sekoetlane Phamodi, was joined by Richard Gevers, founder of Open Cities Lab, Meshack Masibo of Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), and Edrine Wanyama, human rights lawyer and Legal Officer at the Collaboration of International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). The panel discussed the importance of open data and data protection in accountable governance as well as specific trends in open data in East and Southern African countries. 

The conversation kicked off with Richard Gevers sharing a bit about the work of Open Cities Lab, where the team works though civic tech and people-informed data to increase citizen participation, build trust and accountability in government, and strengthen democratic systems. 

Research from Open Cities Lab has found that where there is a lack of reliable data and information, it is hard to stop the rise of mis- and disinformation and easier for people with different political agendas to take hold of civic space, deterring the efficient delivery goods and services and limiting citizens’ ability to hold the government accountable. 

They’ve also found that data collection by the government is carried out in a supply-side manner, which falls short of addressing citizens’ needs. Gevers sees this as a reflection of the organizational structure and culture of the government. He suggests that data be collected and presented in a human-centric way, where people can access information in the ways that they want and need to use it. A prime example is Open Cities Lab’s tool, My Candidate, which pulls up the names and information of people running in local elections if you simply type in your address. 

Open Cities Lab’s work on WASH services in informal settlements revealed that a lack of accurate data can disrupt the feedback loop between citizen and government. Gevers described how city governments have evolved to operate like corporations, with tax collections acting as revenue. However, when you have non revenue customers, they are generally left out of data collection and have no way of being able to monitor projects or provide feedback on service delivery. 

To counter these inequalities, Open Cities Labs initiated a program that teaches citizens how to effectively monitor WASH services in their communities. By changing the data indicator from the number of taps installed to the number of taps working, communities were able to provide feedback to the government on how to improve the delivery of WASH goods and services. Gevers added that accountability relies on how things are measured and the extent to which citizens can participate in the process

Meshack Masibo joined the conversation by sharing that open data and data protection are intrinsically linked when it comes to internet governance and digital rights. The relationship between open data and privacy is especially important because of the larger implication it poses to citizen trust and confidence in the government. Although the releasing of government data poses many opportunities, it can also pose a threat to the privacy of individuals. In Africa, this can be seen in the use of online platforms to incite gender-based harassment. Online harassment hampers the ability of women and other gender minorities to feel safe using the internet and limits their participation in online civic spaces, leaving half of the population out of the political discourse.

Masibo added that Kenya has made progress in open data policy through the Access to Information Act. Through the law, citizens are able to request information in writing or a manner that meets the needs of a literacy and disability. However, the law includes several loopholes through which the government can refuse to release information, which include reasons such as personal and national security, undermining the government’s ability to manage the economy, and if the information would cause damage to a public entity. The government’s refusal to fill the requests of citizens for information has eroded trust in the government-citizen relationship and limited citizens’ ability to hold the government accountable. 

Edrine Wanyama shared developments in international agreements and legal frameworks for data protection. Specifically, the African Union Convention of Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection, which borrows from the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, and outlines key provisions countries should take when enacting data protection laws. Unfortunately, the convention has limited signatories and ratifications. 

Quite a few African countries have legislation in place to protect data privacy, however many of the laws don’t reflect what is in the convention. Governments still have the ability to limit what information is made available to the public, particularly when it comes to contracting or when there is a lot of money at stake. Additionally, governments have enhanced the ability to collect individuals’ personal data with very little limitations. 

Wanyama added that citizens should know that personal data, including address, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and even finger prints, can be used to identify them, which can pose a threat to personal safety. In many cases, individuals who criticize the government can become a target. In a digitalized world, we do a number of things online using personal data. If it is not protected, anyone can use it. He emphasized that as a basic human right, citizens have a right to privacy, which includes physical and digital privacy and freedom of expression. These rights are central to democracy. 

When speaking about obstacles that prevent progress, Gevers added that organizations often get tied up in technical discussions about what data should be public and what data should be. He suggested using Open Data Institute‘s definitions to free up time and space to focus on what the goal is and how data can inform policy. Open Cities Lab takes an approach of understanding what the impact of data is, how it can meet the demands of the citizen, and how to mitigate against negative outcomes in order to drive policy that demands accountability. 

The conversation concluded with a final word of practical advice to the #HackCorrpution teams as they work to increase open data and data protection. Meshack offered a final note of increasing inclusivity, making online civic spaces safe for women and gender minorities, and making data protection laws gender sensitive. Richard offered the advice of understanding the user and the problem you are trying to solve and involving citizens from the onset of a project by connecting directly with them. Edrine closed by sharing that it is important for citizens to know why information is being collected and it is just as important for them to  know their rights and understand which questions to ask their government about open data. 

The full discussion can be found here


Working with the U.S. State Department, Accountability Lab is partnering with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) to run the #HackCorruption program over the next two years. The first event is a hybrid Tech4Good event taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa July 22-24 with 100 participants from Lesotho, Zambia, Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. More information is available at www.hackcorruption.org.