RIA Executive Director Alison Gillwald has received a Shuttleworth Foundation Flash Grant

“Shuttleworth Foundation have a funding model that rewards brilliance and new ideas by awarding full-time Fellowships. However, bubbling around the periphery of our model it has become clear that there are voices that are not heard… This is where the Shuttleworth Flash Grant comes in. We tasked our Fellows to seek out and nominate an impressive change agent and Alison’s name was one of those that percolated through,” said Jason Hudson, a Foundation director.

Dr Gillwald said she would be using this grant to catalyze the institutionalisation of public ICT indicator development on the continent. Policy formulation processes in the Global North tends to take place under conditions of information overload with comprehensive official statistics and competing research and analysis, from think tanks and universities and consultancies.

“But here there is a dearth of accurate data and analysis for evidence-based ICT policy in Africa. So even if processes are open and consultative what little information received tends to be from lobbyist and stakeholders with vested interests. Often the public information that decision makers in more mature economies would rely on is simply not available and public interest research and analysis are rare.“

On the supply side this problem extends from the lack of the most basic access indicators, to indicators required to assess prices and quality of services. The vital relationship between all these must be understood if the benefits associated with broadband Internet are to be harnessed in developing countries, she said.

Further, there were certain kinds of information in the dynamic, mobile pre-paid environment of African communications that could not be determined from supply side data alone, she added. And  on the demand side almost no African countries were doing the kind of nationally representative demand-side surveys necessary for modeling factors of digital inclusion and exclusion  and thereby to identify the correct points of policy intervention.

Research ICT Africa has been developing some of the only publically available, nationally representative demand side data available on the continent for the past decade with the support of the Canadian International Development Research Centre. This has gone for nearly 20 countries at its height in 2008, to possibly three if the Governments of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa come to the table on a co-funding initiative in 2015.

Some of the gaps in ICT indicators gathered on the supply and demand side could be overcome with public access to suitably anonymised big data from telecommunications companies and from social networking sites. Certainly most of the currently delayed and inaccurate national administrative data that informs national ICT indicators are used by the International Telecommunications Unions (and are then replicated in various other multilateral agency reports) could be provided accurately and almost in real time by big data from mobile companies. Such measure certainly  include measures for the number of active SIMS, traffic between networks, and even down to cell level if required, quality of service, ARPUs.

Developing a governance framework that would allow access to this data while safeguarding the privacy of individuals and firewalling commercially sensitive information, would have value far beyond ICT sector regulation of course. Mobile big data has been used for transport planning, allocation of health resources and land classification at a fraction of the price of multiple national surveys undertaken for planning purposes.

Opening up the discussion with various African institutions,including governments, national regulatory authorities, private sector and civil society stakeholders and continental  institutions such as the African Development Bank and Nepad to institutionalize the funding of rigorous collection of data t in order to create an open repository of data and analysis for evidence-based policy making is necessary. Such data would undoubtedly impact upon service delivery, advocacy, business development and innovation.

“My overarching vision is that the currently untapped, proprietorial and even as yet not gathered data is opened up and transformed into a public good, like other national statistics – classically that they are non-rivalrous and non-excludable – the use of them does not diminish the resource or inhibit the use by others.”

But with most national statistic offices unable often to fulfill even their current national responsibility and national regulators failing to collect and submit even basic indicators, even where they have the authority to do so, ways of ensuring that this complementary supply, demand and big data research is seamlessly undertaken year in and year out, not subject to the vagaries of international aid and random government allocation of resources, is required, Dr Gillwald said.

The first practical step will be to engage domain name authorities across the continent to contribute a percentage of the fees levied by them to a research pool to collect up to date administrative data and undertake surveys in as many African countries as possible. If you are domain name authority tell us what you think about this idea. Is it feasible? What other ideas do any of you have to build a sustainable, continuous, up-to-date repository of African ICT indicators?

Find out more about Shuttlework via http://www.shuttleworthfoundation.org or watch our video: http://vimeo.com/32908507