On the hunt for data: Building an Open Data Repository in Uganda

by Paul Kuhne

Paul Kuhne is a first year Global Policy Studies student at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, with a specialization in International Development. This summer, Paul worked as an AidData Summer Fellow at the Open Sustainability Institute (OSI) in Kampala, Uganda.

Paul Kuhne traveling through Queen Elizabeth National Park. Photo by Paul Kuhne.

Several weeks prior to my arrival in Uganda, I received an email outlining my scope of work at OSI. One of my key action items was to develop an Open Data Repository that would feature information related to agriculture, environmental sustainability, weather patterns, and livelihood indicators — vital data for a region increasingly impacted by changing climate.

At the time, I assumed that OSI’s close partnerships — with Makerere University and organic farmers in Gulu and Kitgo — meant that it could gather real-time information from on-the-ground sources, and that OSI already had access to a variety of relevant datasets. But during my orientation two months later, I quickly realized that many more datasets would need to be sourced for a real Open Data Repository. I, like many others in the development sector, would need to embark on a far-ranging hunt for quality data.

Before my team at OSI began, however, we needed a strategy. The first step was to identify the types of datasets we would prioritize for inclusion: geographically-disaggregated organic farming sites, data on alternative energy sources, statistics on water use, and other key sustainability indicators. The second step was to scour the internet to verify which datasets were available for the repository. The final and perhaps most important step was to see which datasets were unavailable, and identify where they might live. This last step led me into the world of hunting data.

Our first journey on the hunt took us to the Center for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC) at Makerere University. After meeting with Executive Director Mary Suzan Abbo, we learned that CREEC has some projects with solar data, and could potentially provide data on the types of cookstoves and where they are used. While the visit was impromptu, it was an excellent first step in identifying future datasets.

Demonstrating tree planting interventions at CEED. Photo by Paul Kuhne.

On another trip, we spent a morning meeting with Community, Empowerment, Education, Development (CEED) discussing how they could incorporate geospatial data into their tree-planting interventions, and investigating whether we could build their data into the Open Data Repository.

CEED is a non-profit organization operating in Gulu that offers students the ability to contribute to sustainable community projects. CEED Uganda Director Labeja Julius Gunya outlined his hopes for using geospatial information. “Since CEED was founded in 2009, we have planted a number of tree plots around Gulu, in order to restore the area’s ecosystem,” said Gunya. “OSI is demonstrating through simple tools like mobile apps and geocoding how we can direct our students to gather information about our trees.” After this meeting, CEED began the process of geocoding their interventions. We decided to follow suit and reciprocate, by planting several trees nearby ourselves.

Additional meetings proved successful in the hunt for open data. Vital Signs, an organization that focuses heavily on sustainability indicators and climate change data in East Africa, houses geocoded information on its website. Working with the African Innovations Institute, they gather data on over 461 “E-Plots” — 100 x 100 meter areas where researchers document indicators related to soil health, water levels, natural resource use, foliage, livelihoods and others. In a productive Skype call, Vital Signs’ Data Manager Matt Cooper helpfully explained the organization’s data collection techniques and how to access their raw data. Matt’s helpful advice allowed us to begin incorporating Vital Signs’ data into our Open Data Repository.

CEED Uganda Executive Director Julius Gunya, second from right, explains how he plans to augment CEED’s work with mapping and open data. Photo by Paul Kuhne.

Since my arrival, I have found it sometimes difficult to find rich, accurate data in the realm of climate change and sustainability. On one data-hunting trip, we ventured to Makerere University’s Forestry Department and several other research units, only to learn that these units were simply not able to collect data at the level OSI needed. A common sentiment was that the cost of producing this data was often prohibitively high for NGOs, researchers, and other civil society groups that simply do not have the necessary funds, staff or infrastructure. While several organizations we spoke with had future plans to collect data, the reality of these barriers creates a challenge for studying and responding climate to change that must be addressed.

As our meetings with NGOs and government ministries continue, we have not stopped hunting high and low for open data on climate. By the end of our fellowship, we plan to have integrated 20 datasets and 20 shapefiles into the Open Data Repository. We hope that academics, policymakers and other NGOs will strive to use this data to make informed decisions about their programs and policies.

Finally, we recently had a productive conversation with one of the key authors of Uganda’s Open Data Policy Draft at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. The new policy envisions an open data-promoting environment in Uganda that would reduce costs and produce more available data for organizations like OSI. And with changing climate patterns threatening agricultural resilience, an accessible Open Data Repository could help Uganda address the challenges of farmers and policymakers alike. Long after the summer ends, OSI will remain on the hunt for open data, with their Open Data Repository serving as a strong first step to providing data for effective decision-making.

Funded by the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN), the 2017 AidData Summer Fellows are embedded within local host organizations and USAID Missions in four countries: Uganda, Peru, Nepal, and the Philippines. The Fellows provide training and assistance to their host organizations in order to promote the use of geocoded data and GIS in development program planning, advocacy, and research.