Celebrating September 28 is a time of pride and humility.
I am proud of Africa and our contribution as a continent in having September 28 globally recognised as the International Day for Universal Access to Information – IDUAI. It is an achievement that we should all be excited about.
Undoubtedly we could not have done it without support but it is the efforts of civil society organisations on the continent that thought about the global impact of access to information and drove the process of having it accepted – first by UNESCO and then of course the United Nations General Assembly. That’s a feat!
On a personal level, I am humbled by the effort of the people and organisations that stayed committed to the process. How many of us can claim to say “we” stay dedicated to a plan without knowing when it will be realized? I feel that arduous journey in the depths of my being, which means I can go on and on about the people and their organisations from this amazing continent of ours that were involved in lobbying for IDUAI with noteworthy support, limited resources, and minimal recognition.
But if I focus on that captivating story here, it will leave very little room to delve into this year’s theme for IDUAI - “Artificial Intelligence, e-Governance and Access to Information".
To get a grip on the topic, I started off with UNESCO’s description: a good starting point for my journey into focusing on the interconnectivity between the 3 critical issues. “In our ever-increasing digital world, artificial intelligence and e-governance will play an important part in improving access to information. The nexus between the three can help in bridging the digital divide, delivering more efficient and effective services and providing citizens access to tailor-made and accessible information.”
Being one of those people who love to do research – I dived right in and came across the Africa Policy Research Institute insight on the 2017 Price Waterhouse Coopers report - Sizing the Prize. An infographic that visually contextualised which regions will gain the most from AI on their GDP – the image revealed Africa’s presence in this arena was minimal, in fact almost insignificant. The impact on North America’s GDP is predicted at 14.5%, Latin America 5.4%, Northern Europe 9.9 % ,Southern Europe 11.5%, China – a huge 26.1% and developed Asia 10.4%. While, Africa falls into the category of the rest of the World – which includes Oceania and other Asian markets and all together we will benefit 5.6% which is approximately $1.2 trillion.
As always, these rather pessimistic predictions for our continent interestingly have the polar effect on me that they are meant to have. So, every time I hear of how we will underperform or not live up to certain aspirations, I remind myself of our many achievements. This gloomy outlook made me go straight back to ATI - we [Africa] are leading the implementation of access to information and promoting transparency and accountability in the most innovative ways possible, so I zoned in on that.
Fortunately, I came across South African-based ALT Advisory‘s research which focused on safeguarding fundamental rights in an AI-driven future in their AI Governance in Africa which reminded me that while “the discourse is littered with articles that proclaim an optimistic vision for AI-driven social change, with titles that suggest ‘the future is intelligent’, and that we must ‘harness AI in Africa’” – actually we “we have harnessed it".
AI technology offers us incredible possibilities and we are seeing that all the time – the marriage to e-governance and ATI makes it an interesting mènage à trois, but let me preface that with a proviso.
Any conversation around digital technology, AI and access to information must centre around transparency and the protection of citizens from the abuse of power. The keywords and phrases that kept popping up during my deep dive were trust, protection of personal information, AI regulation and protection of human rights.
To understand why – let’s just talk about two exciting AI and e-governance initiatives on the continent – namely the introduction of e-courts in Zimbabwe and Rwanda’s e-government platforms which enables access to and provision of government services in the country. They highlight the possibilities of easing the lives of people, but in preserving the rights they will afford, we have to ask the right questions.
Zimbabwe’s judicial system is poised to go online and the excitement is palpable. There is much celebration about what is being envisaged. The key advantages being touted “include bringing in a justice serving mechanism that is transparent, efficient, affordable, time-saving, protects the interests of witnesses, reduces the backlog of pending cases, and most importantly reduces unscrupulous activities.”
In close proximity the Rwandan government’s platform - Irembo - is hailed as a continental success, because this is where citizens can access government services – such as submitting applications and making payments for various services. It eases the multiple challenges that people may have in getting birth certificates or marriage certificates; national IDs or even applying for a driver’s licence. It also decentralises arduous processes. It has contributed to significant changes as financial losses have declined as it reduces loopholes for corrupt practices and increases revenue for the government.
Aside from people not being able to easily access the platform and the fact that the Rwandan government refuses to reveal how much it has collected through Irembo-offered services, there is something bigger that informs our conversation and thinking in this context.
It was sparked by conversations with friends and colleagues.
They all agreed wholeheartedly that the possibilities that e-governance, access to information and artificial intelligence provide are visionary, exciting, and have the potential of easing the lives of citizens in the different countries. It is indeed a path we should continue travelling. At the same time, they also made me think about the questions we should pose whenever we hear about the marriage between the 3 critical areas.
As members of the sector who have adopted these new technologies or as a member of the public who in one way or the other interface with the types of platforms I just described, there are critical questions we need to ask around data protection rights.
Transparency and access to information start at the moment the idea is being considered. Hence e-courts system – judges, lawyers, clients should be asking:
The conversation is around data – the data collection, data storage, data transmission, and data usage and if they are compliant with data protection standards.
In this instance, you have to turn to the CIA Triad – Confidentiality, Integrity and Availability.
Confidentiality of the information is a component that is always mentioned but the questions posed and the CIA triad provides concrete demands that we should be asking:
Is it secure wherever it is being stored?
Who can access it?
Is the access a secure process?
In terms of Integrity, we need to focus on raw data – Can it be changed by whoever has possession of it?
Does the data remain the same when it is received and stored or accessed?
In the e-justice system – during data capture, information can be changed – for example, a guilty person can be found guilty but entered as non -guilty or vice-versa
Accessibility is critical but;
Is the information accessible at all times – during power outages for example?
Is the information accessible – equitably and equally?
Is access to justice – in the case of e-courts - always equitable?
Does access and justice come at a different cost structure for different communities – in other words, is there a divide between those who can afford data and those who live on $2 a day? It takes me to one place and this is where I leave you with these thoughts – we, the public have to push for these rights by always being aware of the questions we need to reflect on. Most importantly – make it a point to read and understand the Malabo Convention and find if your government has signed and ratified it.
Reyhana Masters is a passionate advocate for media freedom and freedom of expression. She uses her grounding in journalism to weave compelling stories to sketch the African context and challenge regressive narratives on freedom of expression and policy issues on the continent.
The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).