A Data Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa countries trail in involvement with the data revolution. A recent workshop organised in Cairo  addressed how we can change that.

In early June, Open MENA went to Cairo. The IDRC (International Development Research Centre) partners with the Access to Knowledge for Development program (A2K4D) at the American University in Cairo (AUC). The two were holding a workshop to introduce and bolster interest in the ongoing ‘data revolution’ which seems to be jumping over the MENA region.

The ‘data revolution’ lexicon refers to a recent initiative and later report, led by the UN. The global data revolution initiative has its rationale and background in “A World That Counts”, a state-of-the-art assessment of “global challenges for the current state of data:”

– The challenge of invisibility (gaps in what we know from data, and when we find out)
– The challenge of inequality (gaps between those who with and without information, and what they need to know make their own decisions)

The report also identified opportunities to overcome these challenges:

  1. Foster and promote innovation to fill data gaps.
  2. Mobilise resources to overcome inequalities between developed and developing countries, and between data-poor and data-rich people.
  3. Leadership and coordination are needed to enable the data revolution to play its full role in the realisation of sustainable development.

Inclusion means tackling all places world over, and all the different social backgrounds in these places. The MENA region is most often absent in this kind of initiatives — a caveat Open MENA is striving to fix. The IDRC jointly with the A2K4D team thus seized the opportunity to get like-minded people together and imagine the opportunities ahead. The gap in development is the gap in knowledge, as highlighted Dr. Nagla Rizk, so let’s aim to bridge that gap.

A few lightning talks provided attendees with some more up-to-date information on data usages world over and in the MENA region. I spoke about the economic potential of data, especially if it is open for anyone to reuse, study, modify, and disseminate. My focus was on youth empowerment through data. After the lightning talks, we had an insightful discussion addressing a wide range of challenges.

The story goes, data is the new oil, and we have produced more data in the last two years compared to all humanity before. And this is one of the biggest challenges of development issues in the MENA region: the lack of publicly accessible data (about employment, health, education, you name it). The Open Data Barometer, a yearly assessment of the state of Open Data highlighted many times on this website, systematically ranks MENA countries low. The evaluated MENA countries are either capacity constrained or showcase one-sided Open Data initiatives. Such shortcomings prevent the emergence of a sustainable Open Data initiative. Thus, the opportunity to bring about political and social change in these contexts will be limited.

Of course, there is much more to data than its availability. Using it is what creates value from data. Which brings us to the fundamental question of data literacy, or the knowledge about how to work with data.

Think of data journalism, for example. Stories told with data that help complex concepts to reach a much wider audience. One is thus able to tell a story based on numbered facts and to inform not only the public, but also decision- and policy-making.

During the discussion, we addressed the role of universities. They most often provide the knowledge and expertise one needs to engage with complex subjects. But is a university providing for education or preparing people to work in the industry? Work and work practices, as we know them, today will look different five years from now. This calls for innovation in education as we need to develop the right skills now — and to stop teaching redundant ones. Different initiatives exist introducing a real change in skill sets definition and transmission. Open educational resources and open curriculum are some of them.

Our discussion went further: we need to stop producing employees, but instead support and nurture entrepreneurs. Indeed, if unemployment is so high in the MENA region, then one way to solve the problem is to provide the fertile ground for new value-generating activities to emerge. The region already has a vibrant tech startup scene, so promoting data-driven entrepreneurship should be a next step.

As we were discussing applications, our conversation circled back to the substract: the data itself. One way to get hold of it is to have public sector data released for anyone to use, modify and adapt. This is what we talk about when promoting open government data. MENA countries rarely open up public sector data, for various reasons. And opening them up often is not enough: the data needs to be relevant to people’s lives and timely released to make sense.

A suggestion that has worked elsewhere is to find an ‘openness champion’. This would be a ministry which succeeds in implementing openness and in improving its own effectiveness. Such a champion will then be able to convince other institutions to follow.

Whenever it is available, little to no use is made of data in MENA. Are people not aware of the data already available to them and its possible uses? The literacy is one issue, but the knowledge of the data availability is a different one. How then can we improve the use of data already out there? Should the focus be on good delivery or rather, on better understanding of formats and other technicalities?

A solution to this question comes from well-known crowdsourcing initiatives in MENA and Egypt. People do not need to be encouraged to produce data: it is gathered all the time, everywhere. Crowdsourcing can improve dialog about violence, too. One of the co-founders at HarassMap was present at the workshop. She explained how HarassMap, a crowdsourcing citizen-driven initiative, helped flag sexual violence in Egypt, and how this data was then used to analyse social patterns and debunk myths. One regular question HarassMap volunteers and researchers get is about the reliability of data. Abundant scientific literature exists comparing the quality of data gathered by experts and non-experts. Results generally show that the differences in quality are negligible.

What needs to change is understanding about data and equal access for all.

Oh, and:

A special ‘thanks’ goes to the IDRC and A2K4D folks for their welcome and for insightful discussions.

Posted on: August 20, 2015, by : rayna