Data Matters

Mention CAPMAS to most people and they won’t have a clue what you are talking about. Mention the economy and most people will happily share their opinions. Yet, how do we understand what is happening in the economy? How can one distinguish between an abysmal performance and grande achievements? The answer lies in data, lots of data describing a variety of people, places, and timespans. In Egypt, such economic and people census are routinely and periodically gathered in the sacred halls of CAPMAS.

CAPMAS – the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics recently launched a new web portal that is decades ahead of anything seen in Egypt before in terms of government transparency. It features a digital collection of about 300 periodic publications hitherto published and sold on paper booklets, as well as hundreds of individual statistics. This represents an enormous change in attitude about what public means for a government agency in Egypt.

While the core idea behind easy access to information is to promote government transparency, there exists enormous potential for innovation and the creation of business value. Existing firms can use data to create efficiencies. Academic researchers need data to create knowledge. Politician to frame policies. Administrators to run operations. Journalism to fulfil its role in making events understandable. Hard facts unify in times of uncertainty. Thriving tech and digital sectors innovate novelties out of data. The government stands to realise valuable indirect revenue streams. All these constituents face real difficulties without proper and easy access to datasets.

Simply putting its reports in PDF online is not enough. To realise the myriad of benefits openness brings over the the long term data will have to made usable. The key lies in adopting machine-readable and interoperable publishing formats. True value lies in the capacity to merge and manipulate information from a wide variety of domains and sources.

The most important Egyptian government data set may be the census. The next survey of the population and its details is set for 2016 and will be the biggest yet. The stakes are high for this once-a-decade event: Its results determine policy decisions regarding budget allocations and seat counts in parliament. CAPMAS should realise this historic opportunity of moving towards a more open approach to releasing its datasets, embracing convenient and modifiable publishing formats. It is time to shift CAPMAS away from producing information for the state towards producing information for the people.

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