Building a Developing Country Open Government Initiative

Harvard metro station in Boston

Harvard metro station in Cambridge

I applied to the Berkman Center fellowship program for the academic year 2015–2016 with the following subject: Building a Developing Country Open Government Initiative. Bellow is my personal statement that I submitted to the Berkman Center. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

I would like to receive a fellowship at the Berkman Center because I am intent on fostering a project for an open government initiative for IT in Africa. I have worked for the development of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, particularly in developing countries, for several years. I spent four years in West Africa teaching computer science at the master level, building the first rural Internet access in Burkina-Faso, bringing access to knowledge and information through Internet-enabled radio stations in rural Mali, developing adapted digital content for people who had no access to bookstores or libraries, and designing programs to build national research and education networks for governments of Guinea and Benin, as well as post-earthquake Haiti. More recently, I wrote the open source policy, strategy and action plan for the government of Mauritius to support its entrance into the open digital world, which the Government of Mauritius has since adopted and ratified.

I started my own consulting and training company, Soukeina (http://soukeina.com), five years ago. Soukeina is based in France and opened an office in Burkina-Faso in 2013. Building Soukeina was an exiting experience and, as in every adventure, sometimes difficult. Starting my own business to be self-sufficient was an important decision. I had the good fortune of easily finding my first customers, and each project led to another. Currently, Soukeina’s main activities consist of consulting missions for governments and public institutions and providing ICT workshops for professionals.

Today, I believe that being associated with an academic setting would provide the critical networks and necessary collaboration that will advance my project with the support of a worldwide-recognized university center. I explored the world and technologies while I lived, worked and traveled in Asia, Africa, Canada and the U.S. I would now like to capitalize on these experiences and to develop new projects that can have lasting and widespread impact with my acquired expertise and a bright and innovative team environment.

Entrance of building on the Harvard campus

Entrance of a building on the Harvard campus

Recently, many western governments committed themselves to putting the open government agenda at the forefront of their governance and public sector reforms. Making a better use of ICT is a key tenant of those policies and most of these countries have joined the Open Government Partnership launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Governmental agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are now pursuing Open Data policy for their staff, contractors and recipients of assistance grants in order to obtain organized collection of structured data. Many governments in developing countries continue to thrive on the lack of transparency to continue corrupt practices and keep their citizens and civil society in the dark. Pressure to increase transparency and make governments more accountable to their citizens is a crucial step to reducing corruption and improving access to government services across the world. Involving citizens in the development of policies and strategies through open platforms will also make government solutions that are better tailored to the specific needs of their population.

During the fellowship, I would conduct an initial assessment of current eGovernment actions and institute a Developing Country Open Government Initiative. I have field and policy-making experience in this area while I was building rural computer centers in West Africa that provided basic eGovernment services such as digital photography for official documents, templates of official documents, the use of word processors and spreadsheet software, and access to an offline version of Wikipedia. I also co-signed the Digital Government Initiative in Senegal that aimed at improving public sector services to enable greater participation of citizens and stronger collaboration between the government and civil society. I learned from my experience that policies are often conceived of and created through a centralized and bureaucratic process thus making their application in the field challenging because specific local solutions are often required in order to reach each citizen and provide relevant services to everyone. Respecting digital laws of each region is also an important challenge since there is no formal agreement between most countries. Thus, the gap between policy and civil society remains even if significant efforts have been made to fill this breach.

Launching a Developing Country Open Government Initiative has to be done properly because of the extreme complexity of government agency information systems: the newest technologies are piled on older technologies creating layers and trouble while obsolete closed information systems offer barriers to integration with other agency systems because they fail to respect open standards and interoperability rules.

Mark I computer at the science center in Harvard

Mark I computer at the science center in Harvard

Today, African and developing country governments have strong ambitions to develop ICT, and many initiatives based on Information Technology and Communication are ongoing. Several developing country states are also studying Open Government strategies and Open Data initiatives to promote the transparency and efficiency of their administrations.

Developing country governments are currently adopting ICT policies, strategies, and action plans. A Developing Country Open Government Initiative needs to take into account these countries’ very different infrastructures and cultures but must also incorporate ICT standards and specifications such as in Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.

The European Union’s European Investment Fund (EIF), a framework to facilitate the interoperability of its member countries’ e-government services, recommends also the use of open standards for maximum interoperability, and many more public sector agencies the world over have adopted or are considering adopting policies that take these standards into account. Moreover, this Developing Country Open Government Initiative should also respect open contents and open data rules to allow citizens to retain, reuse, revise, remix and redistribute contents and data.

Following the initial assessment, a Developing Country Open Government Initiative for emerging countries will be launched in a selected country. This initiative will make adept use of digital tools in the context of infrastructures, cultures, and policy of the targeted country. It could include the development of a responsive web design eGovernment platform that could be designed to reach a broader range of citizens. It will be user-centric, offer public services, administrative forms, text of laws, and raw open public datasets from ministers, administrations and public services operators. An eGovernment platform that offers services, information and public data through online access (web, smartphones and mobile phones) could represent an innovative and inclusive solution for the entire civil society.

The first step of the pre-project phase will be to develop a multi-stakeholder proposal that includes a developing country governmental agency, a founder and a project team. We will need the approbation of each stakeholder to start up the pilot research project. There will be difficulties to address during the development of activities. It is not easy to deploy a new collaborative way of working inside and outside a government and to share public raw data while current rules and policies apply. Moreover, people who benefit from the current system may try to delay or prevent the changes. Consequently, finding the right people from a governmental agency to support the project is capital. It will be important to move forward smoothly with diplomacy and to include dynamic local experts and trustworthy politicians in this project. I believe that affiliation with a world renowned institution such as Harvard will greatly help advance the project during this phase in order to obtain the political buy in from the participating country.

This initiative will bring government services to developing country cosmopolitans and extend eGovernment information and services to citizens in remote and rural areas. Indeed, one of the biggest challenges is to adapt specific services for remote and rural areas by using asynchronous connections or SMS services. Citizens from these areas often feel abandoned by the government; this pilot research project could be the perfect tool to link citizens together and provide them the opportunity to interact with their public services. Furthermore, the eGovernment platform will be developed using open source software, respecting open standards and contents rules and will be properly documented in order to easily adapt the project to other nations. The initiative will also use local, in-country ICT experts whenever feasible. If the local expertise is not adequate in the technology being proposed, the initiative will be committed to developing local knowledge and training local experts in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the initiative.

Working at the Berkman Center could be a remarkable opportunity because it is a unique place to meet people from all over the world with common interests. I am used to working in an open collaborative manner, and I profoundly believe that great projects can stem from and evolve with the collaborative efforts of people from different backgrounds. The fellowship would be a unique occasion to develop projects to bridge the digital divide in developing countries, to improve access to knowledge in remote areas and to participate in the development of an open and free Internet village for everyone. I have always enjoyed working with a team and learning from co-workers, and I am open to new ideas and concepts that result in a consensus for the application of adapted innovative solutions. Obtaining the fellowship would be primordial step towards developing adapted, innovative, open, and free IT services to bring developing nations closer to their citizens.

I thank you in advance for your time and consideration. I fervently hope that you will judge my application positively. I can be reached in France by phone, email, or Skype at your convenience. If you would like me to come to Boston to discuss the fellowship in further detail, I would be delighted to do so.

Sincerely yours,

Olivier Alais


Originally published at ICT for Development.

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