With the ongoing furore surrounding the so-called ‘Secrecy Bill’, one could be forgiven for thinking South Africa was sinking into state of secrecy where asking questions could earn you a long term stay at Pollsmoor Prison. Refreshingly, the City of Cape Town last month approved a policy on open data, the first of its kind in South Africa.
I work at Code for South Africa, a non-profit that advocates for open data. When we talk about data, we are referring to information that can help you decide which school to send your child to, whether medicines at public healthcare clinics regularly experience medicine stock-outs or whether municipalities consider fines to be a major income stream – such as the Ubuntu Municipality on the N1, which gets 16% of its income from fines it levies.
These days, everyone is collecting data; companies and research institutions, and even our smartphones can track our heart rates and Internet habits. In this case, I am specifically talking about data generated by the different tiers of government, whether local, provincial or national. Unfortunately, much of this publicly funded data is locked up, inaccessible to the majority of us taxpayers who paid for it.
Making this data public promotes transparency in government, which allows us to hold our elected leaders to account. Making data available is healthy in a democracy as it promotes an active citizenry and can even create opportunities for entrepreneurs to create new business using it.
So, what is ‘open data’? Without getting into the nitty gritty of it, the essence of open data is freedom. Freedom to use, distribute, modify, and even, gasp, sell it in the form of apps and tools based on it.
Let us contrast this with the Independent Electoral Commission’s attitude towards data. If you visit to the IEC website, you’ll find very rich data on elections. Using this data, I can find out what the voter turnout was in my neighbourhood, how many of my neighbours might have a red EFF beret hidden away in their cupboard and lots more.
So is it a win?
This is where the City of Cape Town’s open data policy comes in. Driven by Tim Harris, former shadow finance minister for the Democratic Alliance and now head of investment for the City of Cape Town, it has developed a policy that aims to mandate that data produced by the City is free of the chains the IEC, and much of government, have placed on their own data. The City plans to make available an open data portal – essentially a website where data geeks like me can download data without restriction and use it to develop products, write research papers and even criticise poor service delivery.
As an open data activist, I should be singing from the rooftops. But it’s not quite time to celebrate. Unfortunately, the policy is flawed, possibly fatally so. Apart from a number of concerns, echoed by many members of the public who submitted comments, the policy has a major Achilles’ heel. It calls for the establishment of a steering committee who will meet quarterly and review all requests for access to data. This committee will have veto rights, rejecting any requests that may pose “unanticipated risks” to the City. If you are of the cynical persuasion, you might even call it a censorship committee.
Of course, there might be completely legitimate reasons for not allowing data to leak into the public domain. Private data such as ID numbers or individuals’ names, for instance, should be protected. This is probably the City’s primary concern, but the policy does not articulate what sorts of data might be considered unacceptable, nor does it provide a satisfactory mechanism for appealing rejections.
The fact that this steering committee will only meet quarterly may even slow down the release of data. Whereas now I might be able to get access to a spreadsheet by simply making a phone call and receiving the data in my email, my request may now have to be sent to the committee for approval.
I get that the City is cautious. Opening up data is scary. You’re airing your dirty laundry in public. Forget about uncovering corruption, what if the public realise that data is incomplete? Or the quality is poor?
Politically, it’s a brave first step, but this ‘closed by default’ approach is too cautious, too conservative. Remember, we aren’t trailblazers. Countries around the world have been embracing the open data movement for many years. In the United States alone, 30 cities have officially adopted open data at a policy level and have reaped the rewards. Why are we so scared to reveal to the public what they should already know?
The government of the Western Cape is working on its own policy. Hopefully the rest of the country will follow.
I commend the City for taking the first step; I just wish that it were in the right direction. DM
Adi Eyal (@soapsudtycoon) is a data geek working towards creating an open data movement in South Africa. He is the founder of Code for South Africa.