Reshaping frameworks: Five key reflections on open data in West Africa

open data III

  • Written by Camille Clerx
    25 April 2019
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Within the international development sector, open data is a concept on everyone’s lips. From adapting to climate change to combatting corruption, open data promises to be a gateway to evidence-based decision making. Within these discussions, special consideration is given to the importance of opening up government data. Zooming into Francophone Africa, increased commitment from national governments, alongside the emergence of major regional and national events around open data, testify to growing momentum. [1] From the buzz surrounding the open government movement and its benefits in West Africa, you could get the impression that opening up government data is simply a matter of hitting the publish button...

However, a closer look behind the scenes reveals the institutional, technical, political, and sociocultural challenges West African governments face when it comes to open data and leveraging technology for transparency, collaboration and participation. Indeed, the fourth edition of the Open Data Barometer revealed that, on the African continent, “most governments are not meeting the basic Open Data Charter principles… the right policies are not in place, nor is the breadth and quality of the datasets released sufficient.” [2]

In March 2019, Akvo facilitated a workshop in Burkina Faso that took a sneak peek into the public machinery for dealing with information. Besides training the participants in open data procedures and practices, we were there to open up a discussion regarding open data and open government at large: was there an underlying resistance among participants and if so, why? Following ten days of interactive workshops, we formulated some key reflections and recommendations to take open data and open government practices to the next level.

Akvo’s Approach: hands-on, participatory and collaborative by design

In Burkina Faso, the Agence Nationale de Promotion des TIC (ANPTIC) is responsible for one of the 13 commitments the government has set out in the context of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), namely to collect and publish at least five hundred data sets on the portal. Akvo's mission was to enable the government representatives and civil society leaders to implement this commitment through technical and theoretical capacity building. The workshop was part of the Programme d’Appui aux Gouvernement Ouverts Francophones (#PAGOF), led by Expertise France and CFI and funded by Agence Française de Développement (AFD). With 40 open data leaders from ten ministries, two public institutions, five civil society organisations (CSOs) and one private sector organisation, we set out to spike interest in the benefits of open data and develop the actual technical skills to publish datasets.

Besides the practical work of identifying, prioritising, cleaning and preparing data sets for publication, the biggest question throughout the workshop was: How? How do we envision open government and open data in our Burkinabè context? How to develop use cases of open data? How to engage with our citizens? How to promote civic participation in a sustainable way? How to develop mechanisms of collaboration adapted to our realities, and accepted by our citizens? How do we use new technology without leaving anyone behind in the context of low internet coverage?

open data II

Above: Corinne Gonkouzou (civil society), Ilyasse Kaboré (Akvo) and Delphine Coulibaly (Ministry of Mines and Quarries) work together to identify and prioritise the datasets that will be published on the portal. Burkina Faso, March 2019.

Five key reflections on open government data

From the group reflections and practical workshops, five main pillars of reflection arose which we believe are key in taking open data and open government practices to the next level. These are paramount to reshaping existing frameworks and enabling an environment in which data is used to produce powerful information. From this, decision makers can drive sustainable change.

1.  What is the state of open data infrastructure?

One of the main issues governments encounter is the difficulty in conducting continuous collection, processing, analysis, storage, maintenance and dissemination of data across different sectors. Indeed, most data infrastructure is very recent and not all of the necessary elements are fully functioning. The result is that data capable of sufficiently describing reality for the past 20 years is either limited, hardly accessible, or siloed in various state actors. [3]


For a functioning data infrastructure, the resources (technical, human, financial), political frameworks, standards, processes and protocols are required. For all these factors to converge, strong political will and long term investments are needed to bring about structural change and build capacity in a sustainable manner.

2. Make data publication meaningful: how can the purpose influence the process?

There is increasing pressure to publish open data as a means of driving development and transparency. While this has spurred progress, it has also put the focus on publishing lots of data over a short period of time. By focusing on the means (data publication) and not the end (data use), the needs of the end use(r) can sometimes get lost. As a consequence, the data that is being published is not necessarily easy to access or use.


Government organisations need to know how to harness open data for their benefit.  Success stories can inspire and educate government organisations to use open data from different sources and implement open data projects. In addition to top level political interest, individual government agents need to develop an interest in starting or participating in open data initiatives. The présimètre and NENDO have been presented as highly valuable open data initiatives developed in Burkina Faso and can be interesting use cases for other government departments.


A strong link between government efforts and societal problems can illustrate how society benefits from open data initiatives, thus encouraging the government to participate. However, “society stands to gain more [from open government data] and tends to be the driving force behind it.” [4] CSOs are therefore essential in this process - they have a key role in mobilising communities and are the voice of citizens at local, national, and international level. Events bringing open data producers, users and facilitators together, such as hackathons, can be one way to go.

3. Lifting legal and procedural barriers: how to authorise the right people? 

“I would be willing to if I could, but I don’t have the mandate to publish our data openly.” This has been a recurring statement from government agents during the workshops.


It became clear during the workshops that the legal frameworks hadn’t been adapted to carry out one of the eight principles of Open Government Data, that “data is as collected at the source with the highest possible level of granularity, not in aggregate or modified forms.” During the #PAGOF workshop, the Institut National de la Statistique et de la Démographie (INSD) drew our attention to the law on statistics in Burkina Faso, which prohibits the publication of primary data. A thorough investigation of the laws regulating privacy, competitive advantage, intellectual property and national security is needed to develop necessary legal reforms.


Secondly, open data can only be truly called open when it is published under an open licence. This is a major stumbling block, prompting heated debates. The state actors present seemed to be weary of the scope of internationally developed open data licences, like the ones from open data commons or creative commons. The concern is that it might not be adapted to their national laws and, more importantly, that it is out of their sphere of control. These concerns have been addressed and national open data licenses are being developed.


Third, current (informal) institutional procedures often require the approval of the director general of a department before any decision on publication is made. This might also be influenced by formal procedures, whereby data has to be formally approved before it is processed into information. Thus, a culture shift in how the government deals with information needs to be followed up by the development of formal procedures decentralising the right mandate to the right people.

4. Addressing economic constraints: how to change the business model of public institutes?

We found that, as in many other countries around the world, a major barrier to working towards open government data is the function of public institutions. They are the main reference when it comes to statistical, environmental and demographic data, and their main source of income comes from data. Be it the national weather institute or the national institute for statistics, their business model is built on revenue from governments, organisations or civilians requesting data. It’s unrealistic to ask these institutions to change overnight and give their data away for free. If they are to publish their data openly, other sources of income need to be found. Opportunities have been identified concerning the need to keep data up-to-date and the development of applications and tools for data use.

5. Public vulnerability: are governments ready to transform their role of “gatekeeper”?

Last, but certainly not least, one of the major concerns expressed by government organisations centres around the notion of public vulnerability. This notion usually revolves around two different arguments.


First, the concern is that open government data will benefit the big players who already have power (companies coming from what we call developed countries), enabling them to exploit the resources of others (coming from what we call developing countries). As they have greater capacities and resources to capitalise on the published data, they will more easily harness the data to their advantage.


Second, the question has been raised of protecting the public from intentional or unintentional misuse of raw data. Someone at the workshop stated: “These principles are great for nations like yours (referring to the Netherlands), but what about ours, where educational levels are low? Are we developed enough to put into effect these notions of accountability, public oversight and citizen participation through open government?”. A concern is that the public isn’t able to exploit raw data, leading to the spread of erroneous information about governments, which are already facing a lack of trust from the general public. It seems that this idea of misuse by the masses and, thus, the need for the government to keep control, dominates. In order to address this concern, it is important to engage with governments and develop solutions to mitigate the perceived risk to a level that is acceptable to them. For example, by developing tools that make the data consumable for the greater public or by engaging with infomediaries. As the representative of the ECOWAS in Burkina Faso stated during a regional conference: “Illiteracy is not equal to a lack of intelligence and should never be perceived as a restraint to use ICTs”.

What to expect for the future?

The kick-off of open government and open data in the public sector in Burkina Faso has been given several times, by several actors. The #PAGOF workshop was not the first. The group responded with the same question we’d asked them: How? How can people be led to take ownership? It is a battle on many fronts, but let’s take it one step at a time. First, the right legal frameworks need to be put in place to provide the right people with the authority to carry out the policies written down in the Burkina Faso OGP Action Plan. Then, we can think of ways to go over the threshold of the early adopters to enter the category of early majority.


The practical approach of the training has taught us one thing: it is time to take things off of the paper and put them to work. In order for the founding concepts to be adopted by a larger group, leading actors need to play around with them to answer questions regarding their relative advantage, their compatibility with the existing systems, their complexity, their testability and potential for reinvention, and their effects. The group has expressed the need to identify open government data focal points within the different state and non state actors. They need the resources to put their shoulders to the wheel and push the movement to a higher level.

As Akvo West Africa, we can engage our unique experience in building the skills, knowledge and processes necessary for working with (open) data in the public sector. Indeed, data and tools don’t have meaning on their own. They are only one part of the whole. Only people can transform them into valuable assets for their specific context and needs. It is not enough to be data-based, we need to strive to be data-informed, and the human factor is key in this process. 


Do you want to know more about how we work with open data at Akvo West Africa? Get in touch


[1] The first ever Francophone African Conference on Open Data and Open Government (CAFDO); The wave of recent memberships of Francophone African countries to the Open Government Partnership; The emergence of national agencies in charge of digital development, such as the Burkina Open Data Initiative (BODI).   


[3]  For a case study on the state of data throughout the data processing cycle in the context of water resource management in the city of Fada N'Gourma (Burkina Faso), check the progress report of Initiative: Eau.


Camille Clerx

Camille Clerx is a project manager in Ouagadougou, West Africa.

Posted in: Data services