Data Science changing the public good landscape in Kenya

August 18, 2016
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So profound has DataKind been that it helped thwart a serious food crisis in Kenya.
So profound has DataKind been that it helped thwart a serious food crisis in Kenya.

, Tons of data is being created every second of every day. With the penetration of extreme connectivity, mobile phones, satellites, the internet, and sensors, even peripheral countries like Kenya are producing data that can be mined, harnessed and understood to gain fresh insight about the world for purposes of impacting lives and influencing change.

The Kenyan Question

The data science hype has taken root around the globe. However, taking the hype and activating it for positive social impact requires some effort and smart partnerships. Chalenge Masekera, a data scientist and who has been involved in various data science ICT4D projects, believes public good is where data science has the greatest potential.

“We can do a lot of amazing things in data science to improve business processes, increase ad revenue etc but none are more impactful as using data and building solutions that improve people’s lives or can be used to save lives”, he says.

Though data science is still developing, there have been a number of data-inspired projects happening in Kenya. The lessons learned from these projects provide a clear understanding of how public good can be achieved simply from the appropriate use of data. Some examples of these projects include, but are not limited to:

1. Alleviation of Poverty

GiveDirectly, a non-governmental organization working out of Kenya, has been analyzing satellite images to estimate a village’s relative wealth. Through their analysis, the organization was able to identify the neediest villages for the unconditional cash transfer program they run. Through this initiative, segments of Kenya have benefited from the money transfers to pull themselves out of extreme poverty.

DataKind, on the other hand, has been rallying data scientists to assist nonprofits deal with a variety of data challenges. These leading experts spend anywhere from 3 to 6 months implementing projects to gain finer data about food consumption and pricing. Their analysis is thereafter used to inform monetary policy. So profound has DataKind been that it helped thwart a serious food crisis in Kenya.

2. Encouraging the Spirit of Volunteerism

Tens of thousands of volunteers are giving up their time, resources and skills to contribute to the betterment of the vulnerable, downtrodden and susceptible in Kenya. The UNV (United Nations Volunteers) program, for instance, uses big data to attract volunteers from around the world to spend some time in alleviating the suffering being experienced in certain areas of Kenya.

Overcoming Data Science Gaps in Kenya

The tasks of collecting, analyzing and transforming data into actionable and easily-consumable forms requires a lot of time and great effort. Masekera states that “to correct the situation, it is imperative that data-driven conversations between multiple stakeholder groups are facilitated for purposes of encouraging the different parties to share the data they hold”. Luckily the Kenyan government through the ICT Authority has started to make good progress in this through the Open Data Portal.

Among other things, this portal provides data on the budgets and actual usage of money. A good example is the Constituency Development Fund which was established to empower Members of Parliament in Kenya to initiate various developmental projects related to education, food security, and the fight against poverty.

Masekera sees data science playing a bigger role in dealing with corruption and the misuse of public funds. “Accountability, will only be better achieved by availing this data on the Open Data Portal. Visualizations and models can then be designed to show the general populace, allocation, by money, by category, and trends of usage. This will help citizens hold their MPs accountable for developmental spending at the constituency level instead of stacking all funds into one national budget,” says Masekera.

Other profound example of data science projects include helping farmers better understand pricing trends through daily notifications of prices by product and location. There are also organizations like the iHub in Nairobi which offers bootcamps on how to become a data scientist.

Masekera argues partnerships between public organizations and such hubs can be valuable in utilizing data to improve operations in a manner similar to DataKind but with more homegrown solutions. For example, police departments will no longer be isolated to just typing data into a system of crime incidents and forgetting about it. Instead, they can use data science to start visualizing crime by location and time for purposes of officer allocation. The same can also be done to better understand the volumes and patterns of traffic accidents.

Over and above all, the importance of data science cannot be overstated. By really embracing the power of data, public organizations can use data science for the improved public good that will help shape the collective destiny of Kenya.

Joshua Njung’ei is a Nairobi-based political scientist and writer. Passionate about social development.

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