Open data training in Africa: lessons from the leaders network
The African Open Data Leaders Network brought together public servants working in open data to help them develop their open data policies and communicate its value. Alex Leon reflects on the lessons learnt for future peer-learning programmes
Up against bureaucracy, internal resistance and a cautious organisational culture, innovators within government can often feel at a loss. After all, pushing for change can be a lonely business. It is essential, therefore, to give these innovators the opportunity to connect with and learn from their peers – people pushing for a similar change in a different context.
This is the basis of the peer-to-peer methodology that underlines the ODI's open data peer-learning programme, the Open Data Leaders Network (ODLN).
The programme aims to help open data leaders in government identify and engage open data users, develop an open data policy, and communicate the value of open data within government.
In July 2017, the ODI – supported by the OD4D network – facilitated a regional version of the programme in Accra, Ghana, called the African Open Data Leaders Network (AODLN). Eight countries were represented from across the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Prior to the programme, the ODI team conducted a learning needs analysis of people working in government around the world and surveyed past participants of the programme to evaluate their needs and desired learning outcomes. Based on this, we shaped the agenda around expert sessions on specific themes, including identifying and understanding users, communicating with internal and external stakeholders and developing an open data policy. The team also incorporated regular opportunities for reflections each day to consolidate learning, chances for informal group learning and visits to local innovators in the area.
With a regional version of the programme came unique challenges, including the importance of providing local examples of open data success within government, accommodating for different levels of expertise in the field, and balancing different learning styles.
Local case studies are important
As part of the AODLN programme, leaders were given examples of open data being used in both African and international governments in order to help strengthen participants' advocacy work by allowing them to reflect on what has and hasn't worked in open government data initiatives and why.
Regional case studies were explored, with stories shared by our Tanzania-based ODI Registered Trainer, Emanuel Feruzi. Emanuel shared compelling stories of African open data initiatives which were attempting to tackle major societal problems experienced on the continent, such as poverty, lack of education and corruption. This included projects on which he had worked personally, such as Data Zetu, a Tanzanian initiative which empowers communities to make more evidence-based decisions to improve their lives. Another was the Edo State Open Data Initiative, a Nigerian regional government open data initiative. With these case studies cutting to the core of problems faced by our participants' communities, the conversation was much more animated, with many discussing ways in which these types of projects could be replicated in their local contexts.
This connection with regional examples suggests the need to build a sustainable portfolio of African open data case studies. Enabling open data advocates to point to other success stories could inspire and motivate the use of open data on the continent.
Accommodate for different knowledge levels
The AODLN leaders came from diverse professions within open data, from project managers to policymakers to data scientists. Specialising in different areas, they also had respective gaps in understanding. A data scientist may not know how best to communicate the importance of their open data initiative, for example, while a policymaker may be less able to explain the technical aspects of open data. The more advanced a country's initiative, the more likely its open data leader is to have an enriched understanding of open data.
To bridge different levels of open data expertise, the ODI convened a panel of experts to conduct an 'open data 101' session. The panel was formed of local ODI Registered Trainer, Emanuel Feruzi, the ODI's International Development Manager Fiona Smith and David Selassie Opoku from Open Knowledge International’s School of Data, who grappled with questions from "is there a universally accepted definition of open data?" to "how can open data be accessible and attractive to all citizens?". Often, these questions stimulated wider discussion, with participants adding in follow-ups or querying the panel’s answers.
This kind of collaborative Q&A allowed participants to address the gaps in their understanding in a supportive and informal environment, and turned out to be one of the sessions most valued by our participants.
Balance peer-learning with formal training
Peer-learning programmes often have to strike a tricky balance between delivering new training content and creating a platform for first-hand knowledge to be shared by participants of what works in specific cultural and professional contexts.
Based on our aforementioned learning needs analysis, we made a concerted effort to ensure that content-heavy training was balanced with interactive exercises, allowing participants to learn from each other. In practice, this meant ensuring that sessions were highly participatory and practical – with participants engaging in activities such as 'speed networking' or learning to pitch their initiatives to different audiences.
Another approach employed by the team was allowing for guided reflection time at the end of each day of the programme, asking participants to share their main takeaways, things that they found challenging and questions that they hadn't yet had the opportunity to ask. This helped to create an open environment where participants felt comfortable questioning and challenging the content of the training, allowing the trainers to easily and creatively adapt the sessions during the programme in response to the developing needs of the participants. In practice, this meant rearranging or adapting the content based on its relevance to a particular group of participants – for example, re-adjusting the last day of our programme to focus more on the practical steps of writing an open data policy, as this was a challenge faced by most of our group.
Sustaining the impact of the programme
Overall, the programme was well received, with participants saying they valued the opportunity to network and create new professional connections within the world of open data.
It’s been very interesting I met a lot of new people. Sometimes you actually think you’re ahead of the pack but you come across ideas and you think “we haven’t thought of that, let’s implement that”. So it definitely has been an eye opener.
- Martin Andago, Kenya Law
AODLN is one the best things that has ever happened to my career [...] It has brought about [a] cross fertilisation of ideas, we have learnt from each other, in fact, it helped me to meet a fellow Nigerian who I have never met before and is doing fantastically well at state level.
- John Eromosele, Edo State Open Data Initiative
Our focus has now been on sustaining the success of the initiative beyond our programme. In order to allow participants to keep in contact, the team set up a Whatsapp group in which participants have also been sharing opportunities and challenges. Participants have been discussing opportunities to work together within their regional blocs, in order to create strong regional networks of people working within open data.
Our hope is that the AODLN leaders will continue to collaborate and participate in local-led initiatives such as the African Open Data Network (AODN) led by the Local Development Research Initiative, which brings together open data enthusiasts across sectors to help progress the development agenda on the continent.
The OD4D programme is managed by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) It is a donor partnership with the World Bank, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID), and Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development (DFATD).