Democracy Lab

Bridging Kenya's Data Divide

How Africa’s tech leader made it from PDFs to paperless.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University. 

On July 8, 2011, President Mwai Kibaki officially launched the Kenya Open Data Initiative at a public event attended by more than 3,000 people. The new Internet portal compiled previously scattered or hard-to-access government information and made it available to the public for free. 

Kenya launched its initiative at a time when a number of countries were also putting government information online. The United States led the global open data movement, launching its site in 2009. Britain's official data site went online a year later. Within three years, 31 countries -- including Australia, Canada, Chile, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Moldova, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Uruguay -- had created similar portals. Multilateral organizations embraced the concept as well; The World Bank inaugurated its own open data website in 2010. 

Kenya's Open Data Initiative was an important milestone for the country. In the past, citizens had found it difficult to obtain reliable information from the government. During President Daniel arap Moi's tenure (1978 - 2002), the government restricted the free flow of information and clamped tight restrictions on Kenya's few private radio and television networks. In addition to stifling the media, the Moi government barred civil servants from sharing data outside government. The Official Secrets Act, a holdover from Kenya's colonial era, gave the government the ostensible authority to withhold data. 

When President Kibaki took office in 2002, he did not earmark freedom of information as a high priority; he was instead primarily concerned with job growth. The first three years of his tenure witnessed few advances for open data. Entrenched in a silo mentality, civil servants continued to guard their information. Citizens could buy official reports from the government printing office, but it was a costly and inconvenient process. Other information was available only through appeal to the permanent secretaries who headed ministries. The system created ample opportunities for mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, and bribery. 

When Bitange Ndemo joined Kibaki's Cabinet as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Communications in 2005, he was fully aware of the challenges of accessing government data. As a senior lecturer and head of research and consultancy at the University of Nairobi's faculty of commerce, Ndemo had firsthand knowledge of the difficulty in securing data for academic research. "Getting information from the government was a big problem when you did research from the outside," he recalled. "For example, one area that I really wanted to study was the reasons for the collapse of firms in Kenya. But I couldn't get the information. And I certainly couldn't get several years' worth of information."

Kibaki's government did make incremental moves to improve the availability of information. A significant step came in 2006, when the administration enacted a structural reform to facilitate streamlined access to information. It created the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), replacing the outdated and ineffective Central Bureau of Statistics. The new bureau assumed responsibility for gathering, storing, and analyzing government information, as well as publishing and disseminating the data for public use. 

For Kenya's citizens, however, complete government data remained elusive. Although the KNBS regularly updated its website with the monthly consumer price index, quarterly gross domestic product aggregates, and basic economic indicators such as coffee or tea prices, other statistics were limited to summaries in PDF files. It published paper copies of some of the information in the forms of books and reports, selling them for small fees. 

The government's moderate efforts to widen information access contrasted with the technological explosion that took place in Kenya at the same time. Information and communications technology (ICT) became Kenya's fastest-growing sector, thanks largely to deregulation and privatization following years of government monopoly. After 2000, the sector grew at an average rate of 20 percent annually and contributed an average of 1 percentage point to Kenya's gross domestic product.

Pointing to the fast-growing ICT sector, Kenya's technology community started clamoring for easier access to government information. It claimed that access to government data could help reduce waste, spur development of mobile or Web applications, and promote technology start-ups. Athman Mohamed, director at Trademark East Africa, an agency that promotes regional trade, offered transportation as an example. "Up to 40 percent of the cost of anything in a landlocked country is due to transportation," he said. "You can have a direct impact on the lives [of people] if you can use data to save a day here and there [on goods being transported]." 

The ICT community argued that the new software applications entrepreneurs would create using open data would help encourage innovation and fuel growth. Al Kags, an entrepreneur and founder of the Open Institute, an organization dedicated to open data and open governments, said, "A lot of young people are driven by innovation. They will develop applications if you provide them with data. And they will provide important service to others." For instance, in 2007 - 08, developers had created the Ushahidi platform that helped monitor incidents of violence following Kenya's 2007 elections. It used crowd sourcing, an online tool that rapidly collected and disseminated data from contributors, to track the violence. 

Kenyans could point to another recent example. In 2007, cellular company Safaricom launched M-PESA, a service that enabled subscribers to pay bills and transfer money by using their cell phones. In 2011 - 12, the company earned 16.9 billion Kenyan shillings ($200 million) in revenues from M-PESA alone, with 14.9 million users in a country of 43 million. 

Open data advocates found a champion in Ndemo. Soon after assuming office, Ndemo had identified five priorities for the ICT sector: infrastructure through fiber cables, content and application development, public-private partnerships, capacity building, and employment. The need for open data cut through the last four. 

Early in his tenure, Ndemo looked to build relationships that would be conducive to innovation. He allied himself closely with the minister of information and communications, Mutahi Kagwe, who helped him gain the president's support. Ndemo also developed professional relationships and coalitions by reaching out to ICT people in the private sector. In 2007, he created an ICT Board, a state corporation for implementing the ministry's policies and projects. "In government, you don't get a choice of people you work with," he said. "So, we actually created a small, semiautonomous agency called the ICT Board to quickly implement some of the programs we had started." 

By 2009, Ndemo had developed a track record for carrying out successful reforms by liberalizing the telecommunications sector, supporting M-PESA, and helping bring high-speed fiber-optic cables to Kenya. Tackling the thorny issue of open data was a logical next step. 

Ndemo knew that the success of open data reforms would hinge largely on approvals from ministries to release data through a public website; obtaining such approvals would be costly in terms of time and energy. 

In early 2011, Ndemo made a strategic decision. He opted to launch the government's open data site with information that was already in the public domain, but not yet broadly available or in a usable form. In doing so, he sidestepped the need to confront government agencies about their release of nonpublic information. As the legislative backbone of his efforts, Ndemo pointed to the 2010 constitution, which called for the government to "publish and publicize any important information affecting the nation." 

Although Ndemo's open data initiative operated within existing parameters, he still found it difficult to loosen ministries' tight grip on government information. Needing high-level backing, he made his case during a personal visit with President Kibaki in June 2011. "I went to the president and told him we have a lot of data in government, which we can use and convert into businesses for the youth and for more employment," Ndemo said. "He is an economist, and he understood all this very quickly." Kibaki gave his blessing to the open data project and accepted Ndemo's invitation to preside at a launch event a few weeks later. 

The tight timeline put pressure on Ndemo to move quickly but also worked in his favor. Before approaching the president, Ndemo had met with planning, finance, health, and education officials to get data or secure permission for using data the officials had already supplied to the World Bank. 

To expedite the data-gathering process and lessen the workload on ministries, Ndemo accepted data in any format, printed or digital. Paul Kukubo, chief executive officer of the ICT Board explained, "The idea was that any data is good. We will do the hard work in making that data relevant and cleaning it on our end." 

Ndemo formed a task force of 23 members comprising public officials, developers, and World Bank data experts. The group had teams responsible for (1) solving technical and usability issues, and getting the website up and running; (2) cleaning and formatting data for presentation on the site; (3) addressing legal and policy matters, including terms and conditions for data usage; and (4) organizing the launch-day event. The task force, especially the data team, received technical support from data experts at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.. 

The task force settled a number of strategic questions at its first meeting. The team would focus on data visualization -- visual representation of information through graphs, maps, applications, and easily downloadable files -- instead of just posting PDF files or tables on the website. It also decided to develop applications to showcase how the data could be used. For building the actual portal, Ndemo and other team members agreed to contract with an outside firm to secure the software platform, and customize it for Kenya's needs. 

Starting on June 17, 2011, the four teams began work in earnest. The group worked under extreme pressure. Mohamed of Trademark East Africa, who led the technical team, said, "The project management was minute to minute. There was no detailed plan apart from the overall plan, which was [that] we needed to do this by this day." The team did not have time to write out technical documents or specifications. 

Coordination was important, especially between the technical team and the data team. For instance, a technical team member who found missing or faulty data would contact the data group to remedy the error, no matter how small the mistake. That simple step ensured quality and accountability. To vet software applications before the launch, the task force set up a peer review procedure. For instance, when Erik Hersman, founder of the software developer community iHub and a member of the task force, submitted an application, the technical team had two days to respond with comments. Mohamed said, "We had to enforce quality control [and] didn't want delays, because the president [was coming to the launch]." 

Not surprisingly, agencies with national security concerns were wary of the open data concept. With two days left before the launch, President Kibaki summoned Ndemo to his office. Several ministers, including the minister for internal security, had expressed concerns about the Kenya Open Data Initiative, comparing it to WikiLeaks. The president's office was poised to cancel the portal. 

At a July 7 meeting, the day before the proposed public launch, Ndemo and other task force members assured the president and cabinet ministers that the initiative was controlled locally and that the data was already in the public domain -- in electronic or paper format. The 20-minute meeting turned into a two-hour session as task force members demonstrated through charts and graphs how visualizing open data could help allocate resources. Ndemo noted that the group present was particularly interested in ways that open data could spur employment. Kibaki assured Ndemo that he would inaugurate the portal the next day.                                                        

On July 8, 2011, Kibaki officially launched the site, which showcased 200 data sets organized into six categories: education, energy, health, population, poverty, and water and sanitation. The data included the 2009 census; seven years of detailed government expenditure data, including national and county public expenditure; national budgets; the 2005 household income survey; and information on health care and education. 

Kenya's portal made international headlines and lit up the blogosphere. Newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times carried articles about the site. The Star, a national Kenyan newspaper, rated it number one in a list of "Kenya's biggest ICT stories of 2011." 

Proponents lauded the portal as a giant step forward for Kenya, but some observers were less effusive. They insisted that the project's value ultimately depended on citizen use. Davis Adieno, former national coordinator at the National Taxpayers Association, a government accountability organization, commented on the disparity between the praise the portal received and its actual usage: "It is being celebrated internationally, but very few Kenyans know about the portal or what it is about." In 2012, a year after the launch, the media, and the public had not used the open data portal as widely as proponents had anticipated. As Ndemo related, "Right now, we have dealt with just the supply side of data. The challenge now is to build the demand side of data." 

The lack of Internet availability outside Kenya's major cities sharply curtailed the number of citizens who could use the new website. In 2012, only 6.5 million Kenyans out of a population of 43 million subscribed to an Internet connection, although 11.8 million had access to the Internet. But about 29.2 million people had mobile phones, with 98.8 percent of total Internet subscriptions through mobile phones -- one reason the ministry planned to encourage software developers to focus on phone applications that could reach a wider population. 

A second challenge was timeliness. Ndemo related that after launch, "The pressure I have now is the need for real-time data." Hersman of iHub underscored the issue, asking, "How can we get updated data and engage ordinary people to make their lives better and talk about services?" An important ally in facilitating data flow was the KNBS. The bureau was Kenya's largest repository of government data. Crucially, it had staff in key ministries to gather data or monitor data collection. Ndemo tapped into this expertise, putting in place a plan to allocate responsibility for portal updates to the KNBS, while the ICT Board would continue to project-manage the site. 

A third challenge arose from the muted reception the portal received within government. Sharing of government data required a greater commitment on the part of the government and a stronger legislative framework. In 2012, Ndemo and his supporters were still pushing for greater acceptance of the portal across ministries. 

Despite its challenges, the open data portal provided one avenue of access to government information in Kenya. At the time of the initial launch, the portal had 200 data sets. The number stood at 434 in June 2012. The ICT Board reported 50,515 site visits as of June 2012. When the board opened a Twitter account in February 2012, 429 followers started following the portal, which had had 634 tweets by June 2012. It also reported that users had viewed 29,081 data sets and downloaded 2,600 data sets by June 2012. 

The portal promoted Kenya's reputation as a progressive nation. Kenya was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to launch an open data portal, and the second one on the continent, after Morocco. The portal also facilitated Kenya's membership in the Open Government Partnership, a global effort by eight founding members -- Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, Britain, and the United States -- to promote transparency and accountability in government. 

Although several factors contributed to the successful launch of Kenya's open data portal in 2011, top-level political support and the speed with which Ndemo pushed the portal forward were the two most significant. Ndemo summed up his approach to the reforms: "In government, you seize the moment and the opportunity when you get it. How do you get it? You do the end first, and then you can put the rest in place later. You simply must deal with the why you need something, then think about [the] how later."    

Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Liberia Leans In

In a country where rape has been used as a weapon of war, reformers are making special efforts to turn women into cops.

This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study (2005–2011) produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

After the 14-year civil war ended in 2003, the Liberian government began to overhaul its security sector. Reforms focused on the Liberia National Police (LNP), which had both a reputation to restore and an extremely high incidence of sexual violence to address. From 2005 to 2011 -- supported by Africa's first female president as well the largest peacekeeping mission in United Nations history -- the LNP prioritized gender-sensitive reform. In particular, the LNP strived to recruit more women and to be more responsive to sexual violence.

Building Liberians' trust in the police service would be difficult. During the civil war, some police officers had used violence, including rape, against political opponents and civilians. As John Nielsen, deputy police commissioner for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), recounted in 2011, the "LNP had a unit called the 'black berets,' who were accused of being rapists and murderers. And those men are still around." Furthermore, Liberia's police were notorious for poor handling of cases of sexual and gender-based violence (such as domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual assault). Deddeh Kwekwe, head of the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Unit at Liberia's Ministry of Gender and Development, explained that, before the war, "if someone came to report domestic violence, the police would say, 'It's your fault you were beaten.' If a woman reported rape, the police would suggest she had caused it. Women would be traumatized." This ethos had direct repercussions on the reporting of sexual violence.

In addition, rape survivors were reluctant to report the crime because of the associated stigma and taboo. Victims -- the majority of whom were children -- often knew the perpetrators as neighbors or family members, and many cases were settled privately. The shortage of women in the security sector also exacerbated underreporting. In 2005, only 2 percent of Liberia's police officers were women, yet victims of gender-based crimes often preferred to report to female officers.

To remedy this imbalance -- and to respond to the U.N. Security Council resolution for women, peace, and security -- UNMIL, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Liberia's Poverty Reduction Strategy team set a 20 percent target for female officers in the police by 2014. But problems began at the outset due to the limited number of eligible female candidates. The LNP required applicants to be high school graduates. Decades of war, weak infrastructure, and -- in some parts of the country -- a culture that did not encourage girls' education meant that relatively few women held high school diplomas. According to Liberia's Demographic Health Survey of 2007, 5 percent of Liberian women had completed secondary school or higher.

Of the women who did have the requisite degree, many were reluctant to apply. (Some of their hesitations were equally shared by men.) According to Roland Foley, LNP chief of personnel, "Women don't regard LNP as a profession because of the low salary, the low incentives, and their concepts and perceptions of the police." Nielsen of UNMIL observed that opportunities for advancement were limited; the highest-level LNP positions were political appointments. Moreover, police officers might be deployed to Liberia's rural counties, where there were few roads, schools, hospitals, and other amenities. Another fundamental challenge in recruiting women was that Liberia's security institutions were traditionally male-dominated. Female police recruits were often considered for office positions, but not for work in fast-action or tactical operations groups.

Despite such challenges, by late 2005 the reform movement had gained momentum. Donor countries were committed to investing in gender-mainstreaming efforts, and LNP officers worked with and learned from UNMIL police officers. Perhaps most importantly, a committed female president provided powerful political will.

* * *

Three female LNP officers in particular played important roles in determining the focus and strategy of LNP's gender-sensitive reforms. The first was Beatrice Munah Sieh, appointed by President Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to be inspector general, LNP's highest position. Munah Sieh had served in the police service for 18 years before fleeing the war in 1996. She then served as a special education teacher in New Jersey, before returning to Liberia for the appointment. (Munah Sieh stepped down from her position in 2009. As of the publication of this article, she was under investigation for irregularities in the procurement of uniforms.) The second was Asatu Bah-Kenneth, a police officer since 1985 who served as the founding chief of LNP's Women and Children Protection Section in 2005 and was later appointed as LNP's deputy inspector general in 2007. A third reformer was Vera Manly, who began as a police cadet in 1993, entered LNP's first class of post-war trainees in 2005, graduated as the "most motivated recruit," and led LNP's Women and Children Protection Section beginning in 2010.

To launch the reform, LNP supported study trips, recruitment campaigns, and training. Napoleon Abdulai, a specialist in security sector reform with the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), noted that only when Liberian officials traveled to nearby countries did they realize the extent to which gender-related initiatives were embedded into other police services. Ghanaian police provided supplementary education and scholarships to women, who were sometimes excluded from such opportunities during their youth. Sierra Leone had enhanced its police responsiveness through "Family Support Units" to address domestic violence and sexual abuse, an initiative of Kadi Fakondo, a high-ranking female police officer.

To attract more women to the police, LNP and UNMIL officers launched a countrywide recruiting drive targeting women through events at high schools, universities, and rural gathering places. Amelia Itoka, head of the LNP's gender unit, recalled standing outside the Ministry of Education with a megaphone, encouraging Liberians, especially women, to apply to the LNP. The personnel team emphasized incentives for young women to join, such as training, uniforms, and regular salaries. Top LNP women served as role models in the recruitment effort, sharing their experiences with interested university students, and assuring them that university graduates had increased opportunities for advancement.

Other role models included an all-female Indian police unit sent to serve as part of UNMIL. The officers visited villages and spoke in schools and colleges about their experiences. Rakhi Sahi, commander of the unit from India, said: "[My] biggest accomplishment is building up the confidence of the Liberian women. ... Women as well as men in Liberia look up to us. ... For them, it is a very unique feature that women can take up arms and stand on the roadside and protect them." 

Despite these initiatives, by 2007, LNP's initial recruitment efforts were falling short. Although two years of concentrated recruiting more than doubled the makeup of women in the police force to 5 percent, the 20 percent goal was proving elusive. Education was still a problem. In response, police leaders and their international partners designed an Education Support Program, held in Monrovia, the capital. The goal was to enable women between the ages of 18 and 35 who had completed at least ninth grade to earn the equivalent of a high school degree and qualify for police training.

The first step of the fast-track education program was to determine applicants' ability to learn the required material via an aptitude test. Successful police aspirants went on to intense schooling in 11 subjects. The program provided trainees with lunches and stipends for transportation, as well as housing stipends for those from outside Monrovia. After three months, the institute conducted final exams. Successful candidates then followed standard procedures to enter basic police training at the academy.

The Education Support Program dramatically changed the proportion of female police recruits. According to an UNMIL report, the LNP's 29 training classes held before the initiation of the Education Support Program each included approximately four women out of 150. But the three cohorts of the education program between 2007 and 2008 resulted in more than 100 female recruits per class, increasing women's enrollment from 5 percent to 12 percent and -- according to UNMIL -- creating a "multiplier effect" going forward.

By July 2011, 17 percent of LNP's officers (723 out of 4,198) were female. (By 2013, the percentage had not changed, with 767 women out of 4,417 officers.) However, some gaps remained. First, women were less represented in LNP's higher-level positions and in specialized or elite forces. Second, there were few female police officers deployed outside of Monrovia. Third, the LNP did not have a comprehensive directory of its officers to track retention, training, and promotion, making it impossible to determine whether women officers were being promoted at rates comparable to those of male officers.

The Educational Support Program received mixed reviews. Champions believed the program provided an accelerated professional gateway for women and acknowledged that the increased rates of women in the LNP could not have been possible without the program. However, many expressed reservations. Some believed the program was created in a desperate effort to reach the target of 20 percent women in the police service, and, as a result, prioritized quantity over quality. Nielsen of UNMIL said that the program created a caste system: "The problem is that it only gives you a piece of paper that says you're literate; it doesn't mean you can read it. ... We brought these women into an organization where there were pre-existing women who did have high school or college degrees, [who then] looked down on those who didn't. How can they compete?" Others, such as Abla Gadegbeku Williams, deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and a former police officer, noted that some men resented the fast-track opportunity because they, too, missed out on education during the war.


In parallel with its recruitment efforts, in 2005 the LNP created a special unit -- the Women and Children Protection Section (WCPS) -- to respond to reports of domestic violence, sexual assault, and crimes against children. UNMIL selected trainees for the new unit from both male and female graduates of basic police training. Officers that created Sierra Leone's Family Support Units were brought in to train Liberia's first WCPS officers. Training included instruction in creating case reports for crimes of domestic violence, investigating reports, collecting evidence, and maintaining confidentiality. Trainers emphasized the importance of building the community's confidence by protecting victims, even if perpetrators or acquaintances with power tried to derail cases.

Asatu Bah-Kenneth, the founding chief of WCPS, helped deploy WCPS officers across the country, building new units with financial support from the United Nations. As the head of a new high-profile operation, Bah-Kenneth had to make sure Liberians knew about WCPS. Her team designed awareness campaigns, including leaflets, posters, school visits, community meetings, billboards and radio shows, and engaged with journalists to publicize WCPS services.

By 2011, many Liberians and their international partners considered the Women and Children Protection Section a success, with 217 specially trained officers deployed in 52 special WCPS units around the country. William Mulbah, deputy director of training at the National Police Academy, said that in the past, people would not report sexual assault or domestic violence to the police. Now, however, "if there is a problem, people go to the Women and Children Protection Section first."

But the section faced obstacles. WCPS chief Vera Manly reported that the unit had limited resources, particularly a lack of vehicles. Some Liberians had to walk hours to reach the nearest section office, and in turn officers had to walk hours to reach a crime scene. Police officers did not always coordinate well with prosecutors, and officers did not always have the technical capacity to follow proper procedures. Sometimes their investigations did not collect enough evidence to support their cases in court.

As Liberians realized that they could report rape to the police, the judiciary's caseload grew, resulting in a significant case backlog. To address this issue, leaders at Liberia's Ministry of Justice established Special Court E, a fast-track court created to deal specifically with cases of sexual assault. The ministry also created a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Crimes Unit to counsel victims, improve police officers' ability to run investigations, coordinate the efforts of police officers and prosecutors, and train prosecutors to tackle cases involving sexual violence.

Although the joint initiatives of the Special Court and the SGBV Crimes Unit were promising, reformers expressed disappointment that most cases were not tried and convicted. From its founding in February 2009 through July 2011, the SGBV Crimes Unit was able to move only 16 of approximately 200 cases through Special Court E. Meanwhile, hundreds of people accused of rape sat in prison waiting for trial.

The backlog stemmed from structural and administrative issues within the criminal justice system. Why the backlog? Anna Stone, a lawyer working for the Norwegian Refugee Council's gender-based violence project, explained that the major bottleneck in Special Court E arose from the timing and nature of cases: Judges and juries could hear only one case at a time, and some cases could last as long as a year. Cases were drawn out because criminal complaints were often submitted and heard long after evidence had been destroyed. In rare cases when complaints were reported immediately, there was no forensic laboratory to analyze evidence. Additionally, "finding witnesses is almost impossible," Felicia Coleman, a Liberian lawyer, explained. The broader problem, she said, was that one single court or crimes unit was unable to solve these sorts of obstacles: "The entire criminal justice system needs to be reformed."

Ultimately, judicial roadblocks threatened the LNP's efforts to prosecute sexual and gender-based violence. Vildana Sedo, a U.N. police officer working alongside Liberian officers in the Women and Children Protection Section, noted: "LNP has made huge progress. The problem is that the criminal judicial system is unable to support what LNP achieves." Observers noted the need for comprehensive justice sector reform, including a better integration between statutory law and the traditional or customary judicial system. An anonymous Liberian interviewed by researchers from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs lamented: "Why can't victims of rape get justice? It's not because they're women; not because they're victims of rape; it's because nobody gets justice here!"


Although Liberia has a long way to go, reformers at the LNP leveraged a unique window of opportunity for gender-sensitive reform, increasing the percentage of female police offers and training officers to respond better to sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2011, Bah-Kenneth reflected on her experience leading the Women and Children Protection Section: "As first head of the section, I planted a seed that grew up. And I'm proud of it today. And I can say that I was able to expose a lot of perpetrators during my time. ... I'm proud to say that I gave birth to that section, and now it's moving."