At the Trialogue CSI Conference 2015, Adi Eyal, director at Code for South Africa, provided an overview of what can be done with data when it’s made available to everyone, and the lessons he’s learnt in doing just that.

Code for South Africa is part of a global movement of civil programming organsiations that promote the release of data to make it available to anyone who wants to use it.

“We use technology and data to help people make informed decisions that drive social change,” Eyal says. “We’ve seen information asymmetries, in markets that are broken with one party taking advantage of another because the other party doesn’t have adequate information. We believe that if we sprinkle data into the market place, people can use it to hopefully make informed decisions.”

He explained that as with any other project in development, it’s important for his organisation to think critically about the work that’s been done. In light of this, he presented three case studies of work carried out by Code for South Africa, to highlight what they had hoped to achieve, and their resulting learnings:

Case study 1: The regional programme on access to medicines

Massive disparities exist in the prices paid for pharmaceuticals in the public sector. Code for South Africa realised that there wasn’t sufficient information for government departments who are buying medicine for the public sector to benchmark the millions of dollars that they were spending.

They conducted studies on a basket of medication for relevant diseases including HIV, TB and malaria, and maternal health medication. For four years, he travelled between 14 countries in Africa, going through the “blood, sweat and tears” of collecting data from government procurement departments for the database.

They found that in 34 out of 50 medicines, the ratio between the cheapest and most expensive was five times or more. There were even some examples of 50-fold price differences. “Countries weren’t sharing information and were spending way more money than they should have been,” says Eyal.

This information gave various governments negotiating power with pharmaceutical companies. However, while the entire programme cost GBP 11 million, Eyal doesn’t believe that the project resulted in improved access to medicine in the region. When the funding ended on 31 December 2014, the prices stopped updating, and the entire product stopped. “No one was actually tasked with taking advantage of it. There was no real impetus. We have to look at the people behind the project, because with no drivers, it’s going to fall flat.

He says that from this they learnt that when they create projects, they need to plan into the future. “We can’t just say we did it and walk away.”

Case study 2: Evidence-based advocacy

In South Africa, there are big problems in public health with people waiting for hours to be treated before finding that the medicine that they need is out of stock. Although members of civil society try to advocate for change, they don’t have strong evidence. Code for South Africa launched a Project Tendai to monitor medicine stockouts in primary healthcare facilities in Southern Africa.

Eyal believes that the outcome was “successful-ish”, because while the data is useful to civil society and public health whe made available, strong institutions have to be in place to leverage the information.

Case study 3: Living wage

The most highly publicised of Code for South Africa’s projects, this one aimed to provide South Africans with a tool to work out whether they were paying their domestic workers enough. “Many people don’t know what it costs to be poor in South Africa,” Eyal said.

The online tool used a number of base assumptions – including the costs of getting 2000 calories a day, transport, accommodation, number of people supported – which could all be adjusted with a slider to reflect a domestic worker’s specific circumstances. The story was picked up by News24, and garnered 50 000 hits and more than 250 angry comments. A number of people responded that they would increase their domestic worker’s wage.

“In many ways it was successful. A number of women went home with a bigger bank balance at the end of every month. It was a big news story over a week. Everyone went crazy but nobody knows about it now. So there was no long-term sustainability.”

Collecting data about collecting data

From the findings from each of these three projects, Eyal outlines the following lessons that he believes his team must focus on for the development of future projects:Sustainability

  • Sustainability
  • Sustainability
  • Institutions are important
  • Technology not a solution
  • Partnership with the media can be useful
  • Be adaptive:
    a. Experiment with ideas
    b. Measure success
    c. Learn from failure
    d. Rinse and repeat.

“You don’t know what the answers are when you start out, so you need to build in the possibility of experimentation,” he says. “You don’t know how to solve it, so have some ideas about how to experiment. If you expect to fail and experiment very cheaply in three or four weeks, you can go back to the drawing board and start again.”

As a collector of data, he says that most important thing is to keep collecting data on what you’re doing. “Measure success so that you know the direction in which you should continue.”

Written by Georgina Guedes