In an ongoing collaboration with Education Subsaharan Africa (ESSA), I was invited to write a blog post for them. I chose to write about the problem of reliable and comparable data on higher education in African countries for ESSA’s “Doing more with Data”-series.
This year, 9.8 million students in Africa were not able to go to their universities as they used to because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The aggregated estimate (UNESCO) covers the continent as a whole. This data reminds us of a major issue for the African higher education sector – there is not enough detailed, open and recent data to make good policy and research.
While higher education in Africa struggles with resources, relevance and impact it is easy to forget the issue of data for planning. The adage about a group of people describing the different parts of an elephant — and coming back with widely different conclusions about the animal based on describing the trunk or the tail, reminds us of the complex issue at hand. Policy makers, university administrators and researchers of higher education all need quality and timely data points from all levels of the sector: individual departments, universities, countries, regions and continents.
To align this with the elephant story, without a systematic way of describing the sector, we end up with confusing data. With such difficulties it is hard to conclude on basic trends: if the discipline is growing or declining, and subsequently what links the size of the discipline has to democratization and transparent governance…
Recently, I attended a webinar on the state of open access in Africa where I had a particular use of every presentation, focusing on support for early-career researchers like myself. See my notes with links below. The program was organized by the Training Center in Communication and led by its founding director Joy Owango. After the webinar, I made an interview with Joy Owango and will share some of the highlights of out 45-minute call, but I have cut out our children in both Kenya and Sweden joining us!
What is Training Centre in Communication, (TCC Africa )?
We are a center that supports researchers’ in increasing their research output through training in scholarly and science communication. In addition to this we host monthly thought leadership webinars on capacity building for early career researchers with a focus on open science.
In the beginning, the focus of the center was supporting researchers communicating among themselves, particularly how to write academic papers that could be understood at multidisciplinary levels. Within five years, we broadened the scope and started supporting researchers on how to communicate with non-scientists, even as we are going through this process, I increasingly noted the challenges early career researchers faced in the process of academic publishing.
Before we start crucifying researchers about not being able to write, we need to ask, how are they getting resources for their research discovery? Just by answering this question, our model transformed, which, included providing open access discovery solutions to support their research lifecycle. We do not just offer training, but also advisory services, where we guide institutions on how to set up research and grant offices and also guide governments on ways they can improve on monitoring their research output especially with the support of open data. Before the COVID19 Pandemic hit Africa, we were in Malawi and guided the Government of Malawi through the National Commission of Science and Technology on how they can use Scientometrics and open access data in monitoring research output from the country.
2. What is your funding model?
We are a not for profit organization with a self-sustainable business model, where we charge for our services, and as a result, funding is one of the revenue streams.
3. Do you apply for grants?
Yes, we compete for grants as well, however, it is not our main revenue stream, as it comes with the objectives of the donor and rarely in line with our objectives as such we work with donors who support early career researchers regardless of research background in improving their research output. As a result of this, the donors we have chosen to work with support multidisciplinary research backgrounds and are not restricted to the research interest areas of the African continent (namely research in, health, agriculture, and climate change). This decision was deliberate and 15 years later, we have survived and are self-sustainable. We have seen programs similar to ours come and go as they are 100% reliant on funding and we did not want that as we wanted a more sustainable approach to supporting early career researchers in improving their research output through training.
4. What do you see as the most important issues for higher education on the continent?
Open Science. In its totality from data, infrastructure to academic publishing. Open science is the glue that holds together good quality scientific output from research discovery, academic publishing to dissemination. When a researcher is unable to complete his research due to paywalls, you understand their academic fatigue. Taking a postgraduate course is not easy and limited access to resources to conduct your research can be very frustrating. It was because of the frustrations and academic fatigue I noted in researchers we trained that we thought of getting research industry partners, who supported open science. So when we tell researchers, “you need to be involved in the process of scholarly communication”, it is really the whole research life cycle, from research idea, writing the paper, and the whole process behind it, that helps you write that paper!
5. You founded TCC already in 2006, what is your own journey to where you are now?
From experience, I remember in the early 2000s’ I was studying for a postgraduate certificate in Mass communication research and the only library in Nairobi that had the latest resources in my research area was at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). For five days I sat in that library until 8 pm when they shut down, I would sit outside until midnight as I needed access to the library Wi-Fi and the resources. Fortunately, ILRI is within a campus full of early career researchers, so no one bothered me. This was a typical scenario that early career researchers may face in pursuit of resources for their research discovery process.
If your own university does not have subscriptions to the journals you need, as a student, you are stranded. Even then, I did not understand how bad it was until I got to work with Clarivate Analytics, then Thomson Reuters, and I was like “hold on! this is what I have been asking for… Access to data. But all the good data is behind a paywall!”
When we are talking about open access it is not just journals, it is the whole system! It’s not just “Oh, I want the full-text journal!”, no, it is the research discovery system that needs to be open. I understand there is a business model to it, but it needs to be open because a majority of self-sponsored researchers who may not have adequate support systems fall through the cracks and are unable to complete their education due to lack of resources. In essence, open science democratizes education.
My own reflections from the seminar are that sitting in the middle of the information age exploding, it is easy to just get tired and not research well where you “host” your research, however, it is as important as ever. All the links I shared above are mindblowing in their own way, it is actually as exciting as it is tiring! But you need to understand how to make your research visible and readable to the constituencies you write for! As Joy shared, open access publications in the last two years are many (44%) and growing fast from Africa, however not all fields are well-represented.
The movement toward open science is in a way a “going back” to the foundations of science – sharing progress for the common good – and public and private funders are now going back to this ideal. As a researcher believing in the public good of science, I believe all of us have a responsibility to publish our data and findings open access.
African Open Data Conference 2017, or #AODC17 for short, was a five-day affair in Accra last week (or up to a week if you included some pre and post arrangements). I was there for two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, mostly because that is what my schedule allowed, but also because those days had the least of high-level dialogue – which is often not very productive – and I was more interested in African Open Data on the ground.
1. The field of open data is exploding, the conference was a major to-do with buy in from Ghana’s president and many international organizations as well as several hundred delegates.
3. The individuals involved in Open Data are in much renaissance people, it is programmers-entrepreneurs-governance experts, professors-public servants, accountants-activists, story tellers-national security etc. I felt at home and got inspired to stop forcing expertise and continue on my “wide” career.
4. The base level of what constitute best practices in the open data space is not yet set, exemplified by that Government of Ghana can sponsor such a conference and yet not have passed the rather basic Right to Information bill (I learned at #AODC17 similar have been passed already by Nigeria: Freedom of Information, and Sierra Leone for instance). GovLab‘s “periodic table” (interactive link or see below) of Open Data captures what is needed beautifully. I just have one question: Now how do we go from talk shop to action?
5. The events held about town were a good attempt at integrating the conference objectives with its surroundings, so to speak opening the data of the conference, something often overlooked in conferences.
In all, these were intense days for me, days I feel have impacted my life in a number of important ways both with inspiration, and network. See tweets and next steps/links below.
This weekend is Memorial Day (US), Mother’s Day (Sweden, Hurray for mom!) and African Union weekend (Africa). But how does one celebrate the African Union? I am not sure, but will spend the delayed holiday (in Ghana holidays that fall on weekends get “compensated” at the first possible weekday, in this case AU Day fell on Saturday 25 May, hence tomorrow, Monday 27th is the day off!) and two more days at a data bootcamp vamping up my data mining skills, maybe they can be beneficial for the continent?
Normally, I stay away from everything bootcampey as endurance is not my strongest side, I rather like to digest information slowly over time, but I have made this exception as I am very much interested in how data can become news and more people can get access to knowledge. Or is the words of the organizers:
“to boost analytical, evidence-based reportage by giving journalists the digital tools, access to data, and computational skills necessary for transforming the way that newsrooms function.”
I am excited about tomorrow and should probably hop to bed. Already, I have some ideas for apps that might not necessarily conform with the “extractive sector” that is a focus of this workshop and a hanging question: where does academia come into all of this?