Addressing challenges of data sharing in Africa

Open Data Day 2014
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[NAIROBI] Sharing research data among scientists and with the general public is one of the contentious issues globally across various disciplines.
And it appears that researchers, especially scientists from the developing world, are not doing much to share scientific research data among themselves and even with the public, according to delegates who attended the International Workshop on Open Data for Science and Sustainability in Developing Countries in Nairobi, Kenya, last week (6-8 August).
But what hinders scientific data sharing among scientists and with the public in developing countries? Delegates at the workshop that brought together scholars and scientists from Africa, China and Europe concurred that there are numerous challenges to scientific data sharing in the developing world, and most revolve around their dissemination.

“Recent datasets are ‘sleeping’ in personal computers, and they are all at risk to get lost in a few years.”

Chuang Liu, Task Group on Preservation of and Access to Scientific and Technical Data in Developing Countries (PASTD)

The workshop was organised jointly by four organisations, including UNESCO and the Task Group on Preservation of and Access to Scientific and Technical Data in Developing Countries (PASTD) of the Committee on Data for Science and Technology.
Chuang Liu, co-chair of PASTD, said that most datasets produced by scientists in developing countries are not made open, making sharing of the information difficult.
“Most of their data is ‘lost’ already in the fast updated information technology,” Liu added.  “Recent datasets are ‘sleeping’ in personal computers, and they are all at risk to get lost in a few years.”
Liu noted that Africa lags behind in sharing data, especially those related to the environment, water and climate change that are key resources for the continent’s sustainable development. A reason for this is African countries’ lack of investment in information sharing infrastructure, with only South Africa having a data sharing centre on the continent.
Other barriers to sharing of scientific data that emerged at the meeting were intellectual property and commercial interests. Liu observed that most scientists would like to access data from others, but are rarely willing to disseminate theirs except where intellectual property is recognised and rewarded.
Using the example of China where data sharing centres are available for scientists to share data among themselves and with the public, Liu, who is a professor of geography at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said that African and developing countries scientists need to disseminate their research data freely.
Another barrier cited was inappropriate data presentation format. The workshop called for reliable and accessible data in sizes and formats that can be easily visualised.
Liu called on governments to intervene and fully fund research and development on science and technology, and then everyone could share data to be used for sustainable development planning.
The delegates, moreover, agreed that scientists and researchers from Africa and the developing world should be encouraged and shown the benefits of data sharing. They added that there was a need to provide evidence and demonstrate that data sharing at the right time could advance one’s career.
It is important for African and developing countries to have data sharing centres, especially on science and technology, as they are key to development.
Formation of regional networks and global cooperation, I learnt, could help establish and develop data sharing centres on scientific and technological information.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.