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Friday 18 October 2019
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Open data and access to information a right of citizens

Lameck Mbangula Amugongo

On 3rd May 2016, the world celebrated ‘International Press Freedom Day’, the anniversary of the declaration of Windhoek. The Windhoek Declaration refers to a statement on press freedom principles adopted on 3rd May 1991 by African newspaper journalists who met in Windhoek in their pursuit to be free and independent. In 1993, the United Nations (UN) adopted 3rd May as an International Press Freedom Day. This year’s celebration was hosted under the theme “Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms -This Is Your Right!”. This article aims to underline the correlation between open data and access to information, how this will improve governance, cities and lead an accountable and transparent Namibian house.

Open data is an idea that citizens should have wide access to the information collected by their governments without any restrictions except those preventing the tempering that will misrepresent the data and or information. Open data is relatively new; yet it’s attracting huge interest from many governments as they seek better ways to disseminate, ensure that their citizens are informed. The potential benefits of open data to citizens is massive, it’s not only restricted to policing in government but about government and citizens collectively coming up with solutions. As a country, we are facing a growing number challenges, ranging from drought, unemployment and poverty. Government alone cannot overcome this challenges, neither will they have all the answers. Open data is about moving a way from the view that government has all the answers.

On the other hand, the right to information (RTI) initiative advocates for citizens to exercise their right to access government information, also referred to as freedom of information in the legislations of many countries. In short, the right to information is made up two important points; citizens have the right to access information held by government and public bodies on request; second, governments have a moral obligation to actively disseminate information to the public on matters of public interest. Although Namibia and many African countries are legging behind in this regard, right to information can be traced as far the late 1700s when the right to information was first enacted in the national legislation of Sweden. A lot has however happened over the years, access to information has become a norm in many countries especially in the developed world.

Despite the numerous opportunities and benefits, there are fallacious claims among critics that making public data or information accessible to everyone will compromise national security. This is unfounded, and not untrue; the only thing that open data and right to information will compromise is shady deals and corruption. In order to ensure the critics, the request for access to public data and information doesn’t demand any data that compromise the security of the citizens but data pertaining to budget, transport, health, education and a like. The sharing public information makes more sense especially in this data driven age. However, such sharing of data or information requires good policies to ensure that the information and data is not tempered with. It is therefore equally important for countries like Namibia ensure that they fast track their access to information policies.

In our pursuit to unleash the data revolution in Namibia, together with my colleagues at Provespace technologies and members of Namibia Business Innovation Institute (NBII) Developers Circle, we have been working with citizens exploring how more government data can be shared via our open data portal platform, and how the entrepreneurs and innovators can visualize that data into formats that ordinary men and women in the street can use and understand. The work of these ‘data mashers’ as well call them at Provespace Technologies, will play a crucial role in the creation of useful applications for the public, as well as generate significant economic activities in the creation of jobs and new businesses.

Despite the many similarities between open data and RTI, open data is not here to replace the right to information, however there is need for both initiatives to complement each other: cooperation between the open data and the right to information movement would bring together the extensive experience of the RTI movement with its rights-based discourse and the technical skills and media awareness of the open data movement. Therefore ensuring that the true potential of open data and RTI is achieved, increase transparency and accountability, but also innovation and economic growth, this can be achieved through an integrated, holistic policy that takes into consideration of what the citizens, who are the end-users needs in terms of data and information.

 

Lameck Mbangula Amugongo holds B.IT: Software Engineering, B.Hons: Software Development (Cum Laude) and currently pursuing MSc. Computer Science.

 




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