Challenges of Access to Data in Africa: A two-way conversation
- Oyindamola Johnson
This post seeks to explore challenges surrounding access to data in Sub-Saharan African countries. We will take a closer look at the perspective of African researchers currently working in the region, as well as researchers from other global regions conducting research in Africa on issues relating to access to data. This post also aims at comparing experiences of these two groups in order to understand the unique challenges faced in accessing data in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The importance of research especially in the Sub-Saharan African context cannot be overemphasized. Most effective and successful research around the world iterates, and further leads to big data, innovation and development. This is then further used for policy formation and strategic planning in both the public and private sector amongst others. However, the research space and sector in Sub-Saharan Africa operates under a very peculiar system which is awash with its own unique challenges. Access to data remains a constant worry to many researchers both on the continent, as well as researchers based in other regions of the world who need to get valuable data and statistics regarding different sectors of the continent. And even when research has been carried out, there is still the problem of unwillingness to share results of such research, and the end result is that data sets lie in personal devices, computers, offices, dark rooms, and often stay there for a very long time without ever being used consecutively and productively.
In our current world in which information moves at the speed of light and there is constant demand for information and data, Africa cannot afford to be left behind in ongoing tidal waves of development which oftentimes is directly tied to research, innovation, development and the availability of data, statistics and information.
Several factors are responsible for the seemingly pertinent situation of inaccessibility of data in Sub-Saharan Africa. Issues such as insufficient manpower and personnel involved in research and innovation, poor state of infrastructure, seemingly unnoticeable but apparent political nature of interference in access to data, insufficient research think tanks, lack of funding, as well as unavailability of centralized data banks which can be consulted amongst others.
Sharing her experience on this issue, Ms. Uvania Naidoo, a Master's student at the University of Cape Town, Co-Founder of Open Access Africa and Right to Research - R2RC African Regional Liaison, pointed out that conducting research in UCT has been exceptional, with adequate journal access and book subscriptions. However, part of this can be attributed to the high tuition fees which in turn guarantees access to quality research. She however noted that this is not the case for other colleagues and researchers in other institutions as they do not have access to research findings, scholarly work and journals, as well as information and data. This clearly brings to the fore the stark access disparities faced in accessing data within the same space and environment. Speaking further, she noted that access to the internet remains a challenge-factor in and of itself in which the ability to conduct future research is dependent on ones ability get online, let alone, access journals and data. In essence, the issue of the digital divide hits Africa hard and is a huge impediment to research, innovation and development.
Comparing her experiences in conducting research on Africa while resident in the continent and operating from outsides the shores of Africa, he noted that while currently participating in a programme at Harvard University in Cambridge, data access and availability to students and staff is remarkable. The noted that issue of lack of access to data or research is far from an obstacle, which is one of the major reasons why Harvard via the Office for Scholarly Communication and Harvard Open Access Project has continually advocated for and demonstrated its commitment to open access and data (via DASH) open access for many years now.
Speaking further on her experiences, Ms Jennifer Joel-Obado, President Enyenaweh Research & Innovation which is a research and innovation think tank operating in the U.S. and Nigeria, stated further "I have worked in think tanks in Africa for about 4 years, and access to information is a major challenge. Most times these information/data are not available, or are stored in dusty files, on people's computer, in phones, in notebooks, most of these with no aggregations in a central database. And even when available, most public agencies always find a good excuse to not make them available. However, it is quite easy to conduct surveys, but without public data, the work of a think tank will be quite tedious...!"
She pointed out several challenges such as, issues of research uptake- in use of evidence for policy-making and design of development programs, challenges with funding, scant publishing outlets in the region, capacity and human resources challenges, as well as a wide gap/ deep asymmetry between the research and policy environment, which in turn reduces the possible impacts such work could have on governance.
Using Nigeria as a case study, Ms. Obado further noted that though the Freedom of Information Act has been signed into law in Nigeria, however, it is still an uphill task to gain access to public records, as such information are not available. Even when available, they are often in unreadable format most times and in most cases, public officials are unwilling to part with them.
Comparing her experiences in working with think tanks in Africa as well as Europe and North America, she pointed out that the experiences in these regions are quite different from the realities of an African think tank. Think Tanks in developed regions of the world often have better access to funding, government support, broader partnership/ collaboration opportunities and better support for capacity-building. All of which has direct impact on the accessibility of the organisation to information, as well as the capacity to effectively use such when available.
Speaking on this issue, Jakub P. Hlavka, Researcher at RAND Corporation mentioned that coming from the Czech Republic which is part of the EU and OECD, availability of up-to-date and accurate data is much better than in many African countries. He noted that there is little consistency in data collection in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in same cases, a bias might be introduced to make the economy/investment situation look better than it really is. He noted difficulty in downloading original data sets and files as well as inability to understand non-English data sources as a major challenge also. In retrospect, data on adverse phenomena (infant mortality, illiteracy, corruption etc.) are not always systematically collected, making it hard for the governments to understand the scope of the problems they face.
Looking at the above responses, it is clear that there remains several impediments to the ability to conduct viable research as well as access qualitative data in Sub-Saharan Africa. Research counterparts in Europe, North America and other regions however have an established structure in place which aids research as well as sharing and availability of research outcomes.
Highlighting the way forward, Ms. Uvania Naidoo who's also an Open Data advocates calls for a more inclusive, collaborative and accessible research culture. She also suggests that researchers should consider publishing their scholarly work as open access, as well as to deposit in to their institutional/subject repositories, which in turn increases the visibility and utility of such research work.
Speaking further on ways to stem the tide of limited access to quality data sets in Sub-Saharan Africa, Jakub advocates for the building of databases of information and research findings which are up-to-date, available in English and updated on a regular basis. He noted that governments should be held accountable in using insights gathered from available data, and translate same into economic/social areas in order to aid socio economic development. He also called for more transparency (describing methodology, using English translations, providing annual updates to data collected, using primary and secondary data collection to cross-check findings etc.) which in turn will ensure that data collection in Africa is more credible.
The fact remains that several efforts are being made by certain governments and institutions in Africa to set up regional data banks which will serve as a repository for data, information and research findings undertaken on the continent, however more efforts need to be exerted in order to stem the tide of limited and often absolute access to data.
It is with hope that this series will kick-start an engaging debate as well as discussion amongst researchers in Africa and in other regions of the world, as well as policy makers and the African governments in specific measures which should be put in place to set up national, regional and continental data banks, increases access to funding for local think tanks and researchers, invest in infrastructure and capacity building and development which will in turn guarantee availability of qualitative and quantitative data which can be future explore for the continued growth and development of the continent.