This post is the first in a series on challenges for opening up data in Egypt by budding economist and data enthusiast Mohamed Hegazy.

Screenshot, new CAPMAS website
Screenshot of the new CAPMAS website, launched in May 2015.

Mention CAPMAS to most people and they won’t have a clue what you are talking about. Mention the economy and most people will happily share their opinions. Yet, how do we understand what is happening to the economy? How can one distinguish between an abysmal performance and grand achievements? The answer lies in data, lots of data describing a variety of people, places and timespans. In Egypt, such economic and people censuses are routinely and periodically gathered in the sacred halls of CAPMAS.

CAPMAS, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, is the official statistical agency of Egypt. It was inaugurated in 1964 amidst the height of the Nasserist drive towards a socialist centrally planned economy. CAPMAS carries out regular surveys and censuses to gather data about Egypt and Egyptians. Besides producing its own country-wide original data, it aggregates data from all governorates and official bodies. All this data is then processed into statistics which inform decision-making in governance and administration of the country. Unlike most other national statistical agencies whose role ends here, CAPMAS’s scope of work extends beyond — to “assessing the nation’s human, material and production capabilities for […] mobilisation plans in case of wars and natural crises,” in the words of CAPMAS President, Abobkre El Gendy.

The disclosure of these information, data and statistics is a right guaranteed by the State for all citizens in the Egyptian Constitution of 2014. The Right to Access to Information is a fundamental right enshrined in international treaties, going as far back as 1946, of which Egypt is a signatory. At present, efforts to increase citizen participation to public life comprise opening up and reuse of government data. The concept of Open Data is to make all public data available for anyone to access, use and reuse.

How open is data in Egypt?

In its latest edition, the Open Data Barometer, a yearly index aggregated and published by the Web Foundation, recognised CAPMAS as the highest scoring Egyptian agency. Yet, restrictive licensing keeps CAMPAS from making public data and statistics openly accessible according to the Open Definition. The Barometer “investigated the availability of 15 kinds of data [such as base map data, land ownership data, national statistics, detailed Budget data, national election results]” within 86 countries. In Egypt, only two kinds of data were available to the wider public in any form: the national election results data, aggregated and published by the Higher Electoral Commission; and the national statistics data, aggregated and published by CAPMAS. The country ranks as low as Qatar and is together with Yemen at the bottom of the rankings for the MENA region.

Ranking of MENA countries in order from most open to least open: Israel, Tunisia, UAE, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, Yemen.

The Higher Electoral Commission organised seven elections between March 2011 and the Presidential Election in the summer of 2014. All data surrounding the elections, from the voter registration databases up to the final results, were published online as spreadsheets. A stark contrast to the Open Data Barometer’s analysis on the rest of Egypt, where it found all other 13 data forms to be completely non-accessible to the wider public.

Amidst this bleak landscape of lacking government transparency, CAPMAS recently launched a new web portal. It is decades ahead anything seen in Egypt elsewhere. It features a digital collection of about 300 periodic publications hitherto published and sold on paper booklets as well as hundreds of individual statistics. This is an enormous change in attitude about what ‘public’ means for a government agency in Egypt, and a giant step towards (more) open data.

While a core idea behind opening up public sector data is promoting more government transparency, there exists enormous potential for innovation and the creation of business value through Open Data. Existing firms can use data to create efficiencies. Academic researchers need data to create knowledge. Politicians need it frame policies. Administrators need it to run operations. And journalism needs it to fulfil its role in making events understandable. Hard facts unify in times of uncertainty. Thriving tech and digital sectors innovate novelties out of data. The government stands to realise valuable indirect revenue streams. All these constituents face real difficulties without open access to datasets.

The latest Open Data Barometer ranks the impact of the global open data movement on the Egyptian economic, political and social life as virtually nonexistent confirms these difficulties. It recognises the seeds of readiness in the Egyptian ecosystem, with Entrepreneurs and Business standing to gain the most from Open Data in Egypt.

Radar Chart of Egypt's state in the Open Data Barometer 2014.
Radar Chart of Egypt’s rank in the Open Data Barometer 2014.

The technology entrepreneurial sector in Egypt is currently thriving, with a large increase in startup incubators and funds. It is an official government strategy, headed by the Ministry of Information Technology, to regard entrepreneurial activity as a solution to the countries ills.

What about CAPMAS?

Despite being a leader in government-led data dissemination in Egypt, CAPMAS should do its part to support this wider government strategy by adopting Open Data wholeheartedly. Just putting its reports in PDF online is not enough. To realise the myriad of benefits Open Data brings over the long term, data will have to be usable technically and legally. The key lies in adopting machine-readable and interoperable publishing formats. True value lies in the capacity to merge and manipulate information from a wide variety of domains and sources, in making data properly open. Adopting open licensing terms is crucial to supporting such practices all the way.

The most comprehensive Egyptian government data set is the census. The next survey of the population and its details is set for 2016 and will be the biggest one so far. The stakes are high for this once-a-decade event. Its results determine policy decisions about budget allocations and seat counts in parliament. CAPMAS should realise this historic opportunity of moving towards a more open approach to releasing its datasets, embracing convenient and modifiable publishing formats and open licensing terms. It is time to shift CAPMAS away from producing information for the state towards producing information for the people. It is time for CAPMAS to embrace Open Data.

Posted on: July 28, 2015, by :