Openly debating open data

The Nigerian EITI (NEITI) is discussing the potential for open data to further enhance their already formidable reputation in promoting transparency in Nigeria's oil and gas sector. As ever, the devil is in the detail…

NEITI’s presence

I am currently in Abuja, supporting NEITI in developing an open data policy. The EITI often leads to ground-breaking disclosures, but too often this information is locked in pdf reports. Our work on open data aims to make this information more accessible, useful and influential.

“Oh, so your work is already in the papers,” my cab drive said to me recently, pointing to a newspaper in the back seat while we were stuck in traffic in Abuja. 

Bringing it down to earth

The newspaper was reporting on NEITI’s most recent publication, its Quarterly Review. This first edition utilises information from monthly meetings of the Federal Accounts Allocation Committee, responsible for allocating revenues to various levels of government. Revenues received from the oil, gas and mining sectors in 2016 were analysed, highlighting their importance to federal, state and local governments’ budgets. NEITI’s last EITI Reports are from 2013 (mining and oil & gas), so these quarterly reports with up-to-date information are a major step forward. Several other institutions are embracing open data, such as, NNPC which (the national oil company of Nigeria) has begun publishing monthly production data and sales information.

Diving into the detail

In addition to the quarterly reviews, we are exploring whether NEITI can do more to publish the underlying data. Once in excel or csv format, it can be used for different layers of detail, targeting various user-groups.

It is often useful to put “the users first”. Different users have different needs and different views on how to make this information more useful. The general public (including my taxi-driver) expect a clear summary and assurances that they are getting the full story. An investor might be interested in the data relating to a particular company (or industry), while a policy analyst or regulator will be more interested in specific information, such as what funds were allocated, and whether this is consistent with the law. Our approach to open data needs to cater to all these users.

The process of open data

Access to information is already enabled through Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI); but open data is a way to break down the next barrier, which is requesting the information.

NEITI are realising that such requests are difficult to manage, requiring time and effort to fulfil. In response, they are on the lookout for ways to lessen the burden by creating databases they can easily manage and present information within the parameters of the requests.

The first step is to compile and publish the information online in open data formats, such as excel or csv. This is a simple and manageable way of ensuring accessibility of information. It is also important to clarify the terms of use: a statement or policy indicating that the data can be used freely. The EITI’s open data policy encourages countries to release data under an open licence that allows users to freely obtain and easily re-use it.

From access to utilisation

An argument I have often encountered in these discussions is that people won’t understand what they are seeing; that the data will be misused. But do people really read and understand an EITI Report in its entirety? I would argue not. We need open data tools that allow people to quickly access the information that they need - which will advise and support in making the best use of this information. The EITI’s open data policy highlights the need to increase open data literacy and encourages people, such as developers of applications and civil society organisations that work in the field of open data promotion, to unlock the value of open data.