Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)
CAPE TOWN - In September 2014, t he mayor of Cape Town, Patricia de Lille, led an initiative that could have saved her from one of her greatest challenges as the leader of the city of Cape Town.

The initiative was aimed at enabling members of the public to have access to the city's data and information in the form of documents and other important information. The initiative is now known as the Open Data programme. If the initiative had been implemented fully, it would have created an open government that enables its residents to have access to everything they need to know.

Cape Town and De Lille have to be commended for leading the Open Data initiative; however, more could have been done.

As the first step in driving Open Data within the city, an Open Data policy was formulated. One of the desired outcomes stated in the policy was to enhance transparency and empower citizens to hold the city to account.

To give life to the policy, an Open Data portal was created to enable the public to access city data that includes: tender, water, pollution and spatial data, Cape Town statistics and other important data about the city.

To implement the policy, an Open Data steering committee was established to determine content that can be shared with the residents.

The policy states that this committee was set up for “vetting all content submitted for publication on the portal”. It emphasised strict measures for checking and making sure that what was released to the public was checked for “appropriateness” as determined by the City of Cape Town officials.

Although this process was necessary, it also led to bottlenecks in what is released to the public, which to a certain extent limited the effectiveness of Cape Town's Open Data initiative.

This could be the reason why the Open Data initiative could not save the mayor from her current challenges.

Open Data should allow ease of access to information about infrastructure data, meeting minutes and other important information for decision making by all stakeholders of the city. This has not been the case with Cape Town’s Open Data initiative.

Currently the public does not have enough information to make an informed decision about some accusations made against the mayor.

Improvements

All the information that relates to improvements at the mayor's home, transport tender minutes for MyCiti buses and communication in relation to appointments should be in the Open Data portal. For a city to be truly a champion of openness through Open Data it should do what the Estonian government is currently doing.

Among the data available on the Estonian Open Data portal is the dataset about agreements, regulations, correspondence metadata, budget files, statistics files, databases/registers and others.

For a city to be truly open, the residents should easily access information about contracts (such as MyCiti bus contracts), view tender briefing minutes and findings and information that can improve public trust in public institutions.

It is not too late for Cape Town officials to open up and enable the public to access information to make up their own minds about what really happened with various matters that are making headlines in Cape Town.

The city has led the way with Open Data and can continue to improve in this regard.

The South African government has also tried to be transparent about some of its activities, which is why the public is drowning in news about corruption by public officials.

The government also needs to be commended for leading the way among African governments in terms of transparency. However, it could also do better by championing open government through Open Data. The government could reap many benefits if an Open Data policy were to be effectively implemented.

These are just some of the benefits that the World Bank highlights as key:

Transparency. Open Data supports public oversight of governments and helps reduce corruption by enabling greater transparency. For instance, Open Data makes it easier to monitor government activities, such as tracking public budget expenditures and impacts. It also encourages greater citizen participation in government affairs and supports democratic societies by providing information about voting procedures, locations and ballot issues.

Public Service Improvement. Open Data gives citizens the raw materials they need to engage their governments and contribute to the improvement of public services. For instance, citizens can use Open Data to contribute to public planning, or provide feedback to government ministries on service quality.

Innovation and Economic Value. Public data, and their re-use, are key resources for social innovation and economic growth. Open Data provides new opportunities for governments to collaborate with citizens and evaluate public services by giving citizens access to data about those services. Businesses and entrepreneurs are using Open Data to better understand potential markets and build new data-driven products.

Open Data makes it easier and less costly for government ministries to discover and access their own data or data from other ministries, which reduces acquisition costs, redundancy and overheads. Open Data can also empower citizens with the ability to alert governments to gaps in public datasets and to provide more accurate information.

Efficiency

The president of the ANC and Deputy President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, has promised to bring an end to government corruption.

An Open Data programme that truly opens up government data to the public can assist Ramaphosa in fulfilling his promise. South Africa needs an Open Data portal that can consist of all meetings attended by government officials, contracts concluded, financial transaction records for every cent and other important information.

The mayor of Cape Town has been invited to speak at the upcoming Open Data summit on February 5, about the City of Cape Town Open Data programme. This will be an opportunity for the mayor to share successes, challenges, areas for improvement, future Open Data plans and hopefully data that can enable the residents of Cape Town to make more informed decisions.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs and the current chair of the IEEE-(SA): Industry Connections on Open Data.

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