How not to launch a

By Mbwana Alliy  |  November 17, 2011



I woke up this morning at 4am US West Coast time because I went to bed very early in anticipation of some early morning phone calls to East Africa.

Checking my twitter stream I saw that the Tanzania Government had launched a Open Data website initiative (Kiswahili) along the same lines as guided and launched in New York recently by US President’s Obama and State Department under the Open Government Partnership of which a number of African countries inc. Tanzania had signed on.

The general consensus so far from the twitterverse has been negative. The complaints on twitter started mounting and I gladly participated. Where is the data? The SMS no. set up does not work. The site was loading slow or not at all for a lot of people.

But as a critic I am also keen to understand how this may have happened but also having dealt with African Governments, I have some theories of how we could have got to this situation- I hope it forms some sort of “How not to” discussion and lead to progress to improve the effort. I am a concerned Tanzanian and global citizen.

Where is the leadership and did they listen on stakeholder consultation?:
My first question would be who was put in charge to build this and did the Government actually talk to all the stakeholders. There are plenty of techies around on the ground and abroad to consult (after all the idea came from the west, NOT from within).
Some organizations I was communicating on twitter actually are on the ground building their own data transparency services are the ones who actually tipped me off. The main one that the Government clearly talked to was Twaweza lead by Rakesh Rajani who actually prepared a pretty great presentation to the Tanzania Cabinet.

Some of the twitter conversations stated that they are still in listening mode and all ideas and suggestions are welcome- if so, they should communicate this more clearly on the website.
In any case if effective consultation was done, they would know what is the “minimum viable product” for launching such an initiative.

No benchmarking:
An excuse could be “we don’t know what we are doing, we are just launching this”. I would fire back and say, there are plenty of examples out there in the west and even in East Africa. Kenya’s Open Data initiative was launched with huge fanfare a few months ago and by many respects, set a global example. My friends here in Silicon Valley were shocked. Take a cue from your neighbor and try match it. The current site just does not even come close and comparisons will always be drawn by the local, regional and global community.

Adequate planning and Capacity:
This is where I could be wrong. Did a real plan get put in place to launch this? Or was it just thrown together in haste on orders from up above? On one hand, as a supporter of lean startup principles, its great to launch something rough, but as I mentioned in the benchmarking- there has to be a “minimum viable product” for something like this- and putting up a webpage and some wording and videos is not a viable minimum. I would have been happy with at least one dataset. More to the point, was there the right skillset or “capacity” allocated to work on this to do a proper implementation?

Culturally is Tanzania Ready?
This is a big one… This may come as something totally radical to the Government and even the stakeholders and are just completely not really prepared to open up the closet… In that case it’s just embarrassing to put out a website like this with no datasets- it actually lowers the credibility and seriousness of the Government more than if they had not even launched the website in the first place.

I could be wrong though- and I would like to open up a dialogue here for those who might have been involved in this project to find out more about it and any future plans.

I am pretty passionate about open data, as I wrote in a previous post and I believe it can help Africa unleash innovation and welcome more of such efforts but they should be done properly.

My suggestions are though are actually 2 fold:
– Get a twitter account and other social media presence and have an authentic conversations to take any suggestions and concerns (in the meantime- may want to get that SMS no. working also)
– Shock people and show you mean business by starting with a very serious data set that cuts right into the real issues into why open data is important. I would start with opening up Government petty cash spending on “per diems” related to travel and entertainment. I believe there is much waste here and it is not so much the money, but the time away from office of officials flying to Washington, Seattle, Geneva and other far flung destinations- it takes away valuable leadership capacity within the country.

Here is a great post on Vijanaforum that originates from Daraja that outlines in more depth about the process for Tanzanians and others interested to learn

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