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The Sneakernet Reality of Big Data in Africa

By Wayan Vota on August 5, 2013

Realitiy of Open Data in Tanzania

When I hear people talking about “big data” in the developing world, I always picture the school administrator I met in Tanzania and the reality of sneakernet data transmissions processes.

The school level administrator has more data than he knows what to do with. Years and years of student grades recorded in notebooks – the hand-written on paper kind of notebooks. Each teacher records her student attendance and grades in one notebook, which the principal then records in his notebook. At the local district level, each principal’s notebook is recorded into a master dataset for that area, which is then aggregated at the regional, state, and national level in even more hand-written journals.

Finally, it reaches the Minister of Education as a printed-out computer-generated report, complied by ministerial staff from those journals that finally make it to the ministry, and are not destroyed by water, rot, insects, or just plain misplacement or loss. Note that no where along the way is this data digitized and even at the ministerial level, the data isn’t necessarily deeply analyzed or shared widely.

At the same time, there are countless international development actors – donors, NGOs implementers, etc – all collecting their own educational data, and only some of it is digitized. Twaweza’s Uwezo is a wonderful exception.

In this context, I see a major challenge, and therefore opportunity, in automating data collection and aggregation processes like this with management information systems to have accurate, real-time data for better decisions that also happens to produce rich, detailed big data, which can be made into open data and benefit all educational stakeholders – from children to their parents to teachers and administrators, right up to the Education Minister.

And to be realistic, until countries invest in this basic, unsexy, and often ignored level of infrastructure, we’ll never have “big data” nor Open Data in Tanzania or anywhere else.

Filed Under: Data, Education
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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14 Comments to “The Sneakernet Reality of Big Data in Africa”

  1. Siobhan Green says:


    IT isn’t enough to have data. The data needs to be in a format that is accessible, protected, and cross referenced/structured so that it can be combined with other data sets to turn into information and then knowledge.

    A lot of work goes into digitizing data – but the rewards are tremendous. The biggest issue is that we do not know what we do not know – there is no easy, affordable way to aggregate, analyze and track progress over time without digital systems. This is another example of the digital divide being played out – administrators and managers and teachers in some countries have access to systems that give them better, real time feedback and access to resources across space and time. The digitization of data creates a multiplier of knowledge.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I figured you would like this post. I remember the points you made at the IATI Technology Salon and they were spot on there and in relevance to big data too.

  2. bankelele says:

    You see that volume of paperwork in many vital sectors, like agriculture, policing, education – and that is missing in the fancy consultant powerpoint charts

    Every country should be supported in terms of building up their statistical bureaus and government policies that mandate sharing of information collected

  3. We’ve always got to be asking “Data–for whom?” If we only talk about transparency as a value, and not a tool, users are going to continue to be left out of the conversation.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Great point! I see big data only relevant and useful in education if it is directly helping teachers and administrators do their job better: for teachers, learning where their students are relative to others, and for school administrators, benchmarking classroom level grades and attendance, and child-level improvement over time, etc. And I am sure these are just the tip of the data mountain that would be useful to both.

  4. Siobhan Green says:


    Transparency, in the world in which ICT4D operates, is unfortunately, still a “nice to have” rather than a burning need.

    However, data-driven decision making is NOT a nice to have, not any more. Just like how in the modern business email is a core business tool, digitizing and optimizing your data flows is essential in managing your organization.

    Focusing on digitizing data flows 1. opens up a ton of wasted manual labor that could be spent on other activities (allowing teachers and administrators to spend more time teaching, creating materials, and professional development), 2. creates the ability to measure, analyze, and find gaps across different teachers, student groups, schools, and so forth 3. creates the ability to create metrics to hold people, systems, schools accountable so they can see themselves where they can perform better and give them ways to see progress.

    and of course there is the added benefit of transparency!

    I am becoming less and less enamored of the term “Open Data” because the focus of that term is all about public access to data. The real benefit is the data captured following open data standards has been collected, captured, and archived in formats that make it easy to find, aggregate, compare, layer, and analysis – the data format/structure makes management and analysis MUCH less labor intensive and more real time.

    Or in other words, publishing your 300 page PDF on your website doesn’t make it “open”, and making your standardized, well structured, layerable data set only available to select groups doesn’t make it worthless.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I would go one step further by saying we don’t even need “open data” or even “big data”, we just need actionable data, which may be visible and useful to a relatively small set of people. The key is getting to data-driven decision making by as many key people, as fast as possible, and then it will diffuse from there.

      • Siobhan Green says:

        One thing I have noticed time and and again is how whenever people talk about data (dashboards, big data, mapping, etc), they focus on the output without thinking about the input.

        The best way to get great data is to make putting in data by your data entry people easy and rewarding FOR THEM. The reward can be as simple as reducing workload, but even better is when they see the value of the data in improving their own performance and finding areas of innovation.

  5. Siobhan Green says:

    Our summer nanny is a teacher’s assistant in Fairfax county schools. I asked her what would happen to the quality of teaching if teachers had to hand write all the data they captured throughout the days, weeks, months of the school year.
    She replied “there would be no teaching”
    One of the biggest issues with the common core standards being used/rolled out in the US is that it requires teachers to record ever increasing amounts of granular data per student, per assignment. While it is good data that will be very valuable, it cuts into an already packed day, and most teachers are not huge fans of data entry as it is. We are actually working with Fordham university on creating web and mobile based tools which allow teachers to capture this data using smartphones and tablets in a “just in time” environment – reducing their workload AND meeting the data capture needs.

  6. Part of the mystery here is why the ministry does not adopt existing very low cost technology tools like Magpi (www.magpi.com) to collect and correlate their education data.

    Camfed (www.camfed.org) has a very successful program where they promote girls’ education in five sub-Saharan countries by a variety of methods, including providing conditional payments to girls’ families. For several years they have been successfully automating the data flow for their education program using first EpiSurveyor and now Magpi. And their total tech cost for all five countries combined is in the range of $12-15k (including one Magpi enterprise account). You can read their great case study here: http://bit.ly/camfed-magpi

    Maybe there can be some productive cross-fertilization between Camfed and the Ministry.

  7. Great article in The Guardian today about this very topic: getting from paper data to real-time data, in developing countries: