Open Duka and the Transformative Power of Open and Visualized Data

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Michael MurungiGUEST BLOGGER: MICHAEL MURUNGI, CEO, KENYA LAW

Leafing through a print edition of the Kenya Gazette has always been more like looking for a morsel of information in an encyclopaedia or a newspaper. The weekly publication containing government  notices and other legal notices prepared by Kenya’s Government Printer is wordy and averages 70 pages per edition. If finding one piece of information in it is difficult, then correlating two or more pieces of information in one edition alone is even harder and takes some time. In fact, this is true not only for the Kenya Gazette but also for any printed publication containing more than a couple of pages of text.

Open Duka is designed to take the pain out of correlating two or more pieces of contextually relevant information within and across large collections of data such as the editions of the Kenya Gazette. It is a project by the Open Institute in partnership with Kenya Law  , a state corporation in the Judiciary which provided access to hundreds of digitized legacy editions of the Kenya Gazette, with the funding of the African Technology and Transparency Initiative. The Project  is designed to provide a freely accessible database of information on Kenyan entities.

The pilot phase of the Open Duka portal provides a simple search window into a collection of information contained in editions of the Kenya Gazette and serves the search results as visualized correlations between the different data elements that match the search query. A search for the name of one entity, say the name of a company, gives a search result that display’s the company’s name with threaded links to the names of other entities related to that company.

The value that Open Duka will bring not only to democratizing access to and understanding of public domain information but also to quality decision making and meaningful citizen participation in governance is enormous.

A statement on the Open Duka website says that the project “will provide citizens, journalists, and civic activists with a practical and easy-to-use tool to understand the ownership structure of the world they live in, demonstrating the practical applications of open information for citizens. It will serve as a core dataset for citizens, journalists, and civic activists who want to build 3rd party public transparency and public accountability apps or services, by allowing them to cross-reference the Open Duka company shareholder data against other datasets”.

Because we are generating information not only at a rate faster than we can consume it, but also at a rate faster then we can organise it, the computers and computer applications that help us to organise and correlate this information are the critical infrastructure of the information society.

Everyday, we are taking in information, correlating it with other information to give meaning to it and using that meaning as a basis for making decisions.

A simple example: 30 degrees centigrade is, on its own, nothing more than a benign statement about a certain number on the temperature scale. As a measure of daytime temperature, the meaning that we give to it – based on our experience of high temperature – is that this is hot. When this data set is combined with the name of a village and the time of the day, it is transmuted into knowledge that can be applied to decision making – in this case, not to wear the winter coat; not to travel to that village; or even better, to move a lemonade and ice cream vending business to that village. If a mere number on temperature scale can be the fulcrum for such latitude in decision-making, imagine the scope and socio-economic impact of the decisions that would hinge on visually correlating the data sets of all the entities featured in all the information in the public domain.

The information age is a natural product of our need to be better at understanding our world (making meaning out of things) and making better decisions by automating – and therefore accelerating – the processing and correlation of information. We are in an age when more information is being generated in one week than was previously generated in a generation and the media with which to access the information have become essential life tools. Few things demonstrate our hunger for timely and contextually relevant information than the fact that we now want these tools to be embedded with our own bodies in the form of wearable computing.

Kenya Law is an affiliate institution of the Kenya Open Data Initiative which was launched by the government of Kenya in 2011 with the goal of making core government development, demographic, statistical and expenditure data available in a useful digital format for researchers, policymakers, ICT developers and the general public. As a public institution established to provide access to Kenya’s public legal information, Kenya Law is always searching for new ways to make the information not only universally accessible but also contextually relevant and usable. Kenya Law understands that by providing open and free access to government data and information, opportunities are created for third party entities to add value to it by developing applications and other information products that open up new use cases for the consumers. The Open Duka initiative is a good example.

Beyond piloting the visualization of the information contained in the Kenya Gazette, the Open Duka project aims to scrape data from various other sources including company registration information, procurement information and court cases.

The author is the CEO/Editor of Kenya Law

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