We at the Open Institute are very excited as just this week we witnessed the launch of Kenya’s first sub-national data desk in Elgeyo Marakwet County (EMC), famously known as the home of Champions. The launch day was a big deal for my co-founder, Jay Bhalla and myself in particular. A data desk is essentially a facility in the county government that has a dedicated team from every department that collects, curates, analyzes and publishes data that is relevant to the county.

But first, some context: The Constitution of Kenya (2010) established a devolved, federalized system of government that put in place 47 county governments (similar to the states in the US and Nigeria). These county governments came into fruition in 2013 when we elected governors in each of the counties.

At that time, Jay Bhalla and I had just founded the Open Institute a year before in 2012, so that we could continue to advocate for governments around Africa and the world to open up their data and build transparent systems that involve citizens. We had been at the forefront of setting up the Kenya Open Data Initiative together with the World Bank and the Kenya government.

When the counties started functioning, we had the idea that it would be wonderful to have them start out having transparent systems including their own Open Data. To this end, we started the Open County Initiative in partnership with the Council of Governors with support from the World Bank. The initiative was designed to provide all 47 counties with a robust digital platform to publish their data and engage with their citizens.

We also recognized fairly quickly as we engaged with the county governments that counties have a need for unique data sets that are different from the macro-socioeconomic data that is collected by the national government through the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

Sub-national governments have a much more intimate relationship with citizens given that they are close to their homes. Citizens have a lot more accessible and therefore far greater demands of their local governments than national governments. To that extent, counties need to have access to more incisive and granular data at the village and even household level for them to properly plan and allocate resources.

Moreover, citizens have a much higher oversight of county governments because of the access they have to the officials and also because the projects that the county undertakes are in their backyards.

It is against this backdrop that we actively promoted that counties develop their own statistical and data units that curate different statistics against citizen and household-level data. We have held that for a government to be properly responsive to citizen needs, such data is crucial.

Our view is that development can happen most sustainably from the village level and not top-down from the national as it currently is attempted.

Jay and I hand over the Data Desk manual to the Governor Alex Tolgos (second right) together with the World Bank’s Philip Jaspersen. Looking on is Benjamin, our Programmes Director.

In essence, we know that a county data desk needed to have a number of important components for it to succeed. These include:

  1. A dedicated team that collects, curate and publishes the relevant data to both internal and external stakeholders
  2. A strong digital platform upon which the data is shared that is integrated with the county’s systems and website
  3. A framework for gathering citizen-generated data at the household level
  4. A switched-on political leadership that can take direction from the insights from the data and citizen views.

This year we started working in several counties to attempt to develop this on top of the Open County platform. We did this together with the World Bank as we also tried to build on the work that their participatory budgeting team had already done.

In Elgeyo Marakwet County, we found a strong, highly cohesive team that is led by an accessible governor and deputy governor. We were able to achieve all aspects of developing the data desk in a record six months – building capacity of the team, being introduced to focal points from each department, integrating the Open County platform to their website and data systems and establishing the protocols for curating and managing the data for the benefit of the citizens.

The launch of the data desk today was for us a moment of achievement and validation and we are strengthened in our resolve to continue to work towards establishing a lasting system for transparency and openness at the sub-national level.

Our next step in Elgeyo Marakwet county is to work with the citizens at the village level to develop what they call Village Administrative Units. This component of our work is building on the Global Goals for Local Impact programme in Nakuru, in which we worked with citizens to collect data from all households in various locations that are then used by the county to understand and respond to citizen needs and priorities.

As we do this, we shall continue to work with other counties, including Baringo, Makueni, Taita Taveta, Kilifi and all others. We are even more energized to work towards our vision for a future with an open society that is managed by informed, fact-driven citizens. This society features a responsive and accountable government that delivers the services its citizens need at the level of service they deserve.