In Conversation With Jay Bhalla
Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in urbanism, public engagement, and civic technology.
This month, we spoke with Jay Bhalla, an innovation strategist and open data advocate, who helped pioneer Kenya’s digital revolution. Jay has most recently joined PlaceSpeak as Director of International Business Development. Prior to this, he helped design the Kenyan government’s 2006 ICT policy that kick-started the nation’s innovation and digital startup culture, and played a leading role in shaping the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI).
Jay is also the co-founder and executive director for the Open Institute, a global think tank that provides advisory and technical services in the open data and governance space. He has contributed his expertise and knowledge to open data initiatives in various countries including Moldova, Nepal, Ghana,Tanzania, Uganda, and South Africa.
Q: You come from a diverse career background including a two-year stint as a Consultant at the World Bank. How did you come to be in the Open Data space?
A: My work in the Open Data space started when I was working with the World Bank as a consultant. During this time the World Bank had just followed the US Government’s lead and made all their data available. Prior to working with the World Bank I had been working with the Kenyan Government on designing the Country’s Digital and Innovation roadmap. Because of this experience and connections we began having discussions as to whether we would be able to launch a similar initiative in Kenya and the possibility for Kenya to be the first model country in the Global South. This led to us working with the Government of Kenya and various Stakeholders ranging from Civil Society, Media and Private sector to launch the first open data initiative in sub-saharan Africa – the Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI).
From the lessons learnt from this experience, we then went on to launch the Open Institute as an organization that provides not only provides services to support the Open Data ecosystem in countries as well as the various stakeholders, but to launch initiatives that would support both the supply and demand side of various Open Data Initiatives.
Q: How is the Open Institute helping non-state actors (civil society organizations, media, etc.) build capacity to use data in evidence-based approaches?
A: We have been creating and piloting various initiatives that have ranged from fellowship programs to data literacy capacity building and one of the things that we have noted in common are that a lot of the times the various stakeholders in this space work in silos.
One of the strategies that we have taken is one of an all-inclusive approach when implementing or piloting an initiative. The overall result by doing this is that Citizens benefit the most and all the stakeholders are on the same page building practical solutions that meet the needs of the citizen. Civil society, Community Groups and Community Media are able to work with Civic technologists, for example, to build solutions that will actually be used by the community/citizens. Another approach that we have taken in building data capacity for organizations is customising data literacy programs to the level of understanding and use of the type of stakeholder.
At the end of the day it’s not a one size fits all solution. We have developed data literacy curriculum that resonates with different stakeholder groups and this in turn has allowed them to understand the value of data that they have and should have as well as ways to interpret data for decision making.
Q: Laurenellen McCann of New America has written extensively about building technology with, not for, communities. You take a similar approach. Can you tell us about the experiences that led to your citizen-centered approach?
This is something that we have learnt the hard way. We have often taken the common approach of knowing what the problem is and building technology to solve those solutions, thinking that citizens will automatically adopt them.
In reality this has not been the case and has often led to applications being built that are not used or trusted by citizens. The same holds true for the Data Literacy programs that we’ve implemented where we created course material that we thought the various stakeholders required. That approach did not have the best results and it turned out that we needed to design a different methodology to achieve the impact that we desired.
We therefore started involving the citizen in not only understanding their challenges and problems that need to be addressed but also in helping in the design process of the application. This allowed us to create applications that were easily understood and adaptable to environments that the communities live in. We used the same approach in our data literacy programs and customized the programs according to the environment, challenges and level of understanding of the communities. The result was a much more engaged community that were more involved in the process because they were invested in it.
Q: In your experience, what is the largest misconception about technology in the Global South? How should people best educate themselves about these issues?
A: From our experience, some of the biggest misconceptions that organizations have about the Global South is that, while there are places where there’s a lack of access to digital technology, it isn’t like developing nations are cut off from the tech boom. In fact, many times technology have spread faster in developing nations than developed ones. Cell phones usage is very high and are widely used and they have contributed to many innovations and has led income increases. Africa, for example, has led the way when it comes to Mobile Money through innovations like Mpesa which started more than 10 years ago and other citizen focused tools like Ushahidi to name a few. I think there are actually lessons that developed countries can learn from developing countries, when it comes to designing a methodology when building a technology solution.
Q: Given PlaceSpeak’s commitment to furthering online democratic legitimacy, in what ways do you see PlaceSpeak being re-engineered or used in the context of the Global South?
A: PlaceSpeak, in my opinion, is setting the standard in online citizen engagement in particular using its ability to geo-authenticate and identify users which aids the organizations looking for rich and accurate engagement. I see the same technology and methodology being applied in the Global South however like other technology organizations in this space, for the solution to work, it must address a market that is mostly mobile and uses more feature phones than smartphones. I believe that this is in PlaceSpeak’s development pipeline.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: As an organization and a solution it’s great to see how far PlaceSpeak has come over a very short period of time. Companies in this space are faced with many challenges but I think that PlaceSpeak is one of those solutions that has carved out a niche for itself and provides an exceptional engagement tool.