Harnessing open data to help the most vulnerable in Uganda

One organization in Kampala is working to make open data more usable and accessible for citizens.

September 18, 2017

Hina Acharya

A storm gathers over farmland in the hills near Lake Mutanda, Uganda. Uganda’s farmers are under threat from increasing extreme weather events. 

Surrounded by high fences, the imposing lines of the Ugandan Ministry of ICT building stand apart from its neighbors in Kampala. Would-be visitors must pass two rounds of security checks to reach the inside.

Yet this physically walled-off institution is at the center of a new surge in openness. In response to concerns of corruption and mismanagement of funds, the Ugandan government is moving to make all government data open to the public. The Ministry released the first draft of the country’s new Open Data Policy in May 2017. By 2020, Uganda plans to switch to an open-by-default data policy, where data surrounding all research done by publicly-funded institutions will be openly available on the Internet. But will this new culture of open data really be useful and usable by ordinary Ugandans?

One organization advocating for accessible and relevant open data is the Open Sustainability Institute (OSI) in Kampala. OSI specifically aims to make critical resilience and climate change knowledge available and understandable to those who need it most: Uganda’s farmers, agricultural workers, and others who live off the land.

AidData Summer Fellows Hina Acharya and Paul Kuhne collaborate with a group of young innovators at Makerere University to conceptualize how collecting data and visualizing through GIS can help these students kick-start their innovations. Photo courtesy of OSI.

OSI’s founder, Rushongoka (Rusho) Wa-Mpiira, recalls a trip to Eastern Uganda with his friend Michael Otti in 2013 that illustrated plainly for them Ugandans’ need for open data and ultimately catalyzed OSI’s current work.

Hiking through the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains, Wa-Mpiira and Otti passed an older woman carrying bamboo sticks. Curious, they struck up a conversation. They learned that Margaret, a widow and mother of six, was a farmer of land higher up on the mountain. Margaret was perplexed that her once fertile land was now failing to grow crops. She did not know why exactly her crops were struggling, or why the bees were disappearing. All she knew was that her land was “old land,” and that it had stopped producing food.

After returning to Kampala, the pair kept coming back to Margaret’s story. “[It was] not just about Margaret. She is a representation of thousands of Ugandans who have been affected by climate change. There at the foothills, we had nothing to give her, but her memory stayed with us long after the trip,” recalled Wa-Mpiira. They realized that Ugandans needed better knowledge about climate change and the tools to adapt their livelihoods to a changing environment.

Small farming plots line a hillside in Kikungiri, Uganda where rainforest once stood. As the climate changes, farmers are moving to wherever fertile land can be found. Photo by Roy Waddington, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

While agriculture is a core industry in Uganda, the country lacks large-scale commercial farming. The sector mostly consists of small-holder farmers like Margaret who rely on subsistence farming, along with selling cash crops, to survive. Ugandan farmers depend on the natural patterns of rainfall and weather, but climate change has made these much more erratic. Many farmers are now unable to rely on their historical knowledge for the best time or best crops to to plant, and face long months of famine.

The information Margaret needed to make decisions about her crops can be found in the terabytes of weather, soil and other agricultural data collected by scientists and development workers. But for someone like Margaret, who has never touched a computer or worked with a CSV file, what good would open data do?

OSI believes one solution is their Open Knowledge Platform, where the public can upload short 2-5 minute videos with direct and relevant advice for sustainable agriculture and living. Since most rural farmers do not have Internet access, these videos are also shown at cinema halls or other community places where people gather. OSI also makes regular sustainability journeys across Uganda to directly train individuals.

OSI Director of Sustainability Journeys, Michael Otti, trains farmers in Kamuli about the benefits of bee-keeping and honey production. Photo courtesy of OSI.

“We cannot do our best work sitting in our offices in Kampala. So we go to these rural villages across Uganda to spread knowledge and get information on how farmers are coping,” explained Wa-Mpiira.

This summer, I’ve worked at OSI with fellow AidData Summer Fellow Paul Kuhne to help expand their institutional capacity for analyzing and providing open data. This involved training OSI Fellows in GIS (geographic information systems) and data management techniques, and collaborating with government ministries, NGOs, and private institutions to collect more sources of climate and environmental data for inclusion in OSI’s forthcoming Open Data Repository.

As climatic patterns continue to change, Uganda’s farmers will need the data and tools to adapt. Open data revolutions fail when they do not address the people who need information the most. OSI’s work — not only advocating for open data, but also engaging in mass collaboration to make that data scalable and consumable — is helping Uganda’s open data efforts move in the right direction.

Hina Acharya is a first-year Master’s student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. This summer, Hina worked at the Open Sustainability Institute as an AidData Summer Fellow.

Photo by Adam Cohn, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.