In Uganda, access to government data is changing the face of journalism and community empowerment. Tools for investigating budgets and tracking local initiatives have created an information-driven community who are changing the definition of government transparency.
The world of government data is rarely described as exciting. Yet for a new batch of data journalists and Ugandan technology experts, the number of data platforms opening across the country is exactly that.
Data sites that contain a wealth of information on budgets from aid groups, government agencies and civil society are helping create a new brand of accountability throughout the country.
Although sifting through thousands of pages of spreadsheets is an arduous task, new online tools, most of which can be accessed for free, are making this process manageable. Information that once took days to sift through can be transformed into easily readable paragraphs within minutes.
This drive towards open information is part of what inspired former investigative journalist Edward Sekyewa to open the Hub for Investigative Media. Sekyewa spends his days pouring through government reports. If he stumbles over missing data, he files a request for information.
Uganda's 2005 Access to Information Act states that government agencies must respond to requests within 21 days, and are only allowed to withhold information to protect sovereignty, national security or private interests. In early February, Sekyewa won a landmark case against the Uganda Forestry Authority, when they failed to respond to his request for information regarding the procurement of firefighting equipment.
Sekyewa explained why these issues are so important to him. “I really thought that journalists here were not making use of available laws. More critically the Access to Information law and leadership code act. And yet I found that these are very, very important pieces of legislation that could be very vital in not only getting information but also putting forward the journalist's responsibility of trying to ensure this country is ruled in an accountable and transparent manner... This is very important," he said. "This is the pillar of public participation in government decisions. So how can you participate when you do not ask for information?”
Open data is also being used by IT professionals to create citizen tools. Websites such as Ask Your Government Uganda helps connect citizens with 76 different government agencies. Other sites and applications that track public opinion on social issues, streams of aid money, and budget expenditures have also gained in popularity.
A young technology expert, Emmanuel Opio, said while these systems are still new, Ugandans are quickly adapting to the need for data,
"We are going to get there and for sure my career is going to change. I am going to push a lot into the side of getting data out to the public. Analyze data, I do not want the public to struggle with analyzing the data, I just want them to see and make decisions out of it. Facts from data bases online, and we are going to get this out to them. And I only hope there are more developers out there who would love to join hands and go," Opio stated.
The accessibility of data and resources is changing the way many view government accountability in Uganda. And with the government releasing more information than ever before, it is likely this field will only continue to grow.