SA is behind on its commitments to make "open data" more easily accessible to its citizens, despite having signed an undertaking to do so.

The term "open data" refers to freely available and sharable public information. The argument behind the open data movement is that information about, for example, service provision, budgets, crime stats and population demographics, must be at hand (and needs to be scrutinised) to promote accountability and responsive governance.

SA is a signatory to the Open Government Declaration, and has been a founding member of the Open Government Partnership since 2011.

The partnership is a voluntary organisation that promotes commitment to open data, and the declaration calls on members to "increase the availability of information about governmental activities", "support civic participation", "promote administrative integrity", "increase access to new technologies for openness and accountability" and "lead by example" in these endeavours.

The efforts are guided by country action plans, and SA’s is co-ordinated by the department of public service & administration.

But as Corruption Watch reported earlier this year, SA has made good on just one of the 15 commitments — establishing an anticorruption hotline — over two terms. And that hotline was set up before it signed the declaration.

SA’s second end-of-term report by the partnership found that by the end of 2015 the country had made "substantial" progress on three commitments and "limited" progress on four. As to whether these efforts opened up government, the report qualifies the metrics as "did not change" and "marginal".

A third national action plan was launched for the period up to the end of this year that includes some new and some carry-over commitments, including "open budgeting".

So where is SA on the open data journey? What is now available, and how is it being used?

Rich seam or data dump?

The department runs the SA National Data Portal (data.gov.za), which hosts 409 datasets that range widely in usefulness. The categories listed on the first page (such as community and safety, and human settlements) contain no data, but if you click through to "all datasets" you find downloadable files detailing information about historical water quality analysis, HIV prevalence, energy capacity and so forth.

The Data Showcase page has links worth exploring, such as to the work the Institute for Security Studies has done in an attempt to map crime information (issafrica.org/crimehub).

Open finances

National treasury’s Municipal Money platform (municipalmoney.gov.za) is a good starting point for people who are not data analysts. It provides breakdowns of information about municipal spending and audit findings. For example, the Great Kei municipality in the Eastern Cape had cash coverage for only six days between July 2015 and June 2016 and spent just 0.87% of its maintenance budget. Its "unauthorised, irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure as a percentage of operating expenditure" the year before (2014/2015) was over 23%.

The site provides breakdowns on how a municipality gets its money (rates and taxes versus government provision) and where it spends it (categories). Each metric is accompanied with an explanation.

A more advanced or confident data user might prefer to go digging into the Municipal Finance Data site (municipaldata.treasury.gov.za), as this is where Municipal Money gets its statistics.

Municipal report

Want to delve even further into local government? The SA Local Government Association developed municipalbarometer.co.za with local-level data and benchmarking tools.

It’s a click-heavy site that fails to give a great overview of what it offers upfront, but dig into the data bank a little and you’ll find downloadable, table-format information on social and economic facts, down to ward level.

Map-based monitoring

A very useful application of some of SA’s open data is wazimap.co.za, a project of the organisation Media Monitoring Africa with Code for SA (now OpenUp).

Here census and election information has been mapped down to ward, municipal and provincial levels. The site is simple, intuitive and informative.

Wish to know how your ward voted or how many child-headed households there are in your area? Wazimap has this, and more.

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