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[OP-ED] Are Innovation Hubs the Future of Open Government In Africa?

BY Chris R. Albon | Tuesday, September 18 2012

Members of Accadius, a project at the iHub in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Courtesy of Juliana Rotich

Chris R. Albon is director of the Governance Project at FrontlineSMS. He holds a Ph.D in political science from the University of California, Davis.

Set alongside one Nairobi’s main roadways, the Bishop Magua Centre looks on the exterior no different than any other mid-rise office building. However, inside its drab khaki walls are some of the most innovative technology projects in Africa. Why this building? Because the Bishop Magua Centre’s fourth floor is home to what has been named the “unofficial headquarters of Kenya’s tech movement,” less grandiosely called the iHub. Founded in 2010 by Erik Hersman*, the iHub was one of the first of a new breed of tech workspaces in Africa. Often described as an “innovation hub,” the iHub is part co-working space, part hacker community. Software developers and startups apply for membership in return for access to comfortable office space and good WiFi access. More than that, hubs also host events, hackathons, training, and networking events. Some hubs are even full-fledged incubators, providing funding and mentorship to early stage start-ups. However, more than simply a space to build the next Instagram, these hubs could be home to the next wave of open government innovation in Africa.

In 2011, the iHub entered the open government field in a big way. That year the Kenyan government launched a first for Africa: a national open data project. Called The Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI), the program would eventually release over 400 government datasets on everything from education to sanitation. The potential impact of the data was not lost on observers; technology reporter Alex Howard described KODI as not "simply about meeting data standards or publishing data online. Ultimately, it’s about changing the compact between citizens and their government." After KODI launched, the iHub and its members were on center stage, hosting open data panels, hackathons, bootcamps, and linking the government with the country’s developer community. The Ministry of Information and Communications even used the iHub to award grants to apps that used KODI data. In KODI’s first year, more than 50 applications pulled data from the platform. Of those 50 projects, it is unknown how many came out of the iHub, but it is safe to say a good number did.

In July, KODI celebrated its one-year anniversary. However, at least so far, its impact on Kenya’s politics has been insignificant. Writing on the iHub's blog in July, tech researcher Leo Mutuku gives an assessment of the apps using KODI data, describing their reach and effect as "really wanting," their impact as "barely scalable," and the general public's awareness about them as "almost zero."

Given the iHub’s experience with KODI, can innovation hubs like the iHub advance open government in Africa? I am optimistic. While KODI has not become the herald of open government in Kenya (and admittedly it is still early), the iHub’s impact potential has, for two reasons, only grown. First, with every less-than-killer app, every visualization with only a handful of hits, every “dead Ushahidi,” the founders gain experience and new relationships.

While no iHub-based project has become the Facebook of open government, they do not lack in ingenuity. Huduma combines KODI health data with Ushahidi's (also an iHub member) mapping platform. Thanks to the data, users can, amongst other things, view every school or health facility on a map and report concerns. Another project is Msema Kweli, a mobile application using KODI data to enable users to track and comment upon Community Development Fund projects in the country.

These two applications — and all the projects — must not be judged as the be-all and end-all of the iHub’s open government potential, but as innovative first attempts at the bleeding edge of a new industry. Open data has yet to become a game-changer in Kenya, but what about a new participatory budgeting platform? Or an e-voting system? Over time developers will iterate, pivot, and refine until they find the solutions that work. Therefore, more important than what they have accomplished is whether they are in an environment where that process can take place. And for that, with its startup culture and strong ethos of benefiting the community, the iHub is ideal.

Second, through its experience with KODI, the iHub gained a priceless commodity. The best way, in fact the only way, to achieve real open government is with the cooperation of that government. And, thanks in part to the relationships built during and after KODI, the iHub is doing just that. According to Tosh, the iHub's Manager, since the release of KODI the relationship between iHub and the Kenyan government has only grown stronger. "It is nothing formal to be honest," says Tosh, but "whenever we need each other, we work together. "

In the last two years, almost 60 innovation hubs have sprung up across Africa, from the kLab in Rwanda to BongoHive in Zambia. They are not all like the iHub; some are big, some are small, some have no interest in open government, and others are firmly rooted in creating social change. However if the iHub is any guide, they will all be incubators of invention. So if I were asked to bet on where the future of African open governance was going to happen, I know where I would place my chip.

* Erik has been a personal friend for a number of years.

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