Cape Town's open data policy. Time to celebrate?

We've been waiting for this for a long time. Cape Town is the first government entity to embrace open data. It is time to rejoice? I don't think so.


Finally, the City of Cape Town is the first government entity in South Africa to embrace open data by approving an open data policy. OpenUp has been participating in a working group providing advice to the City and the Government of the Western Cape on their policy efforts. After approximately a year of sitting around a table convened by MEC of Economic Opportunities Alan Winde and driven by then-Shadow Minister of Finance Tim Harris, the City’s policy was approved by the mayor on Thursday (the province’s policy is still being developed).

The media unquestioningly published the official press release.


I’m not so sure. The officially approved policy has not yet been published but here is a link to the draft policy (broken link). A request for public comments was issued in late June of this year and a surprising number of responses were received. This in itself is a good sign that there is a demand by residents of the City to gain access to more information. For some reason, our submission was ignored, but our concerns were echoed by Gabriella Razzano from the Open Democracy Advice Centre.

We noted with concern that the policy did not address what the definition of open data actually is. The policy requires users to accept terms of use before any data would be made available. These terms were not explicitly defined in the policy. They might be benign, e.g. requiring attribution of the data or might be restrictive, e.g. requiring that the data not be used to criticise the City.

Most disappointingly, the policy requires the creation of an open data steering group that will convene quarterly to approve requests for data to be made available on an open data portal. This steering committee has the power to veto any request in order to “mitigate possible unanticipated risks that may arise”. Again, depending on the composition of the steering group and the political environment of the day, this may range from the release of the proverbial missile launch codes to any data the might be politically unpalatable.

In fact, the creation of this committee may potentially slow down the release of data since all requests will now be required to be officially approved.

Reading through the public comments and the responses by the City, a disappointing trend becomes apparent. All the important, meaty questions that ought to have been addressed in the policy were deferred to the implementation phase of the policy. As a result, the final policy is an empty shell that asserts that data should be closed by default and opened only by a committee.

It would be interesting to track all requests made to the committee and their responses. This would allow us to get a sense of the general mood within the committee and which data requests are deemed acceptable and which are considered to be harmful to be made public.

In short, an opportunity to show that the City is interested in real transparency has been missed.