This post originally appeared on Restore Data Rights on January 19, 2022 and has been reposted here with permission.

As the wave of infections brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe in March 2020, we watched various countries grapple to cope with the emergency, focusing on preventive measures to stop and lower the rate of infections. Ranging from country lockdowns, international border closures, social distancing, stay home directives and self/government-imposed quarantine for travellers arriving from different countries, the global threat was handled in diverse ways. With time, the realisation was that in order for countries to implement their preventive measures, they needed a way to trace the rate of infections in a bid to curb its spread. Contact-tracing applications were introduced to track and trace people who had been exposed to the disease in order to prevent transmission after exposure. 

(Image: Snapshot of a poll from a webinar on Preparing for better times: Restoring data rights in a post-pandemic world.)

Though initially well-intentioned, the use of contact tracking apps by governments around the world, especially in Africa, has posed certain risks to citizens’ personal data and digital rights. The risk of citizens’ data being compromised by governments during the pandemic led us to brainstorm ways we could ascertain data governance even in an uncertain period. 

Starting off with a conversation with various stakeholders across Africa, we came together to try to understand what the most immediate data governance issues were that were being experienced in Africa during COVID-19 response planning. The initial conversations were had on the 23rd April 2020, when we held the Preparing for better times: Restoring data rights in a post-pandemic world webinar. This conversation led to the inception and formation of the #RestoreDataRights (RDR) movement with our partners across the continent in Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Kenya.

“The global adoption of data protection legislation has been slow. Only 66 percent of countries in the world have legislation in force, while an additional 10 percent have draft legislation. African countries are behind this global trend, with only 52 per cent having data protection legislation in force.“ Open Government Partnership

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Whereas the journey in building a movement to Restore Data Rights in the continent has not been easy,  we have recorded some key milestones in the campaign to ensure data is governed with transparency, accountability and inclusivity (especially by governments) through: 

1. The launch of the #RestoreDataRights Declaration – This has been the focus  of the Restore Data Rights movement  through which citizens and civil society sign and African governments endorse the declaration committing to transparency, inclusivity and accountability of data governance in Africa during the pandemic. Since its launch, more than 62 institutions and individuals  have signed up for the declaration. Admittedly, the uptake of African governments endorsing the declaration has been slow, with only 1 African government endorsement recorded

2. A CSO working group convened to develop and establish longer term accountability on COVID19-oriented data use – in which we have been able to promote the #RestoreDataRights movement and declaration in various events and forums : 

  • The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) held in September 2020 at which the RDR Declaration was introduced to African civil society. 
  • On 6th March 2021, together with our #RestoreDataRights Partners, we commemorated Open Data Day by convening virtual events in Kenya (41 attendees), Uganda(39 attendees), Southern Africa (Zambia, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia)(12 attendees), Francophone Africa (Cameroon, Chad, Senegal, DRC, Niger and Benin) (9 attendees)and Ghana(11 attendees). The events ran concurrently and featured discussions on the unified theme – Data for Equal Development – exploring country perspectives on issues of data transparency and promoting it in the context of COVID-19.
  • The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) event in June 2021 tied #RDR together with GPSDD’s Data Values Project. The event brought together representatives from The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), the Kenyan Office of the Data Protection Commission, the private sector, and the RDR movement to introduce and frame this work at the intersection of development and digital rights.
  • On 16th – 18th November 2021 we were able to host a high level session on data governance during the Buntwani Open Summit 2021. The session brought together representatives from global and regional standard-setting institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to members of the #RestoreDataRights initiative including Amnesty International Kenya, Paradigm Initiative, the Africa Digital Rights Hub (ADRH), and DataReady among others; in which both data use and data protection issues were discussed. 

3. The Data Protection Awareness campaign in Kenya dubbed #FichaUchi (translates to “hide your nakedness”) was a six week campaign run by the Open Institute from 10th May 2021 on social media which sought to raise awareness on data protection and to demystify the Data Protection Act to (young) Kenyans. The Data Protection Act of 2019 (Kenya) is fairly new and through the campaign it was clear that many Kenyans were not aware of these rights. The online campaign had a total reach of 6,952,085 and 55,290,058 impressions. The campaign was quite successful with local media stations picking up on the conversation (for example as Citizen Digital and Soko Directory)

4. Research on data practices in Africa 

  • DataReady, as part of the #RestoreDataRights movement produced a series of briefs exploring how key provisions of the #RestoreDataRights Declaration are translated into law and practice in KenyaSouth AfricaNigeria and Ghana. These pieces of research form the backbone of the ‘accountability matrix’, providing a way to measure and assess how government policies and actions compare to the RDR Declaration. 
  • Open Institute and Amnesty International – Kenya embarked on an examination of good data protection practises in Kenya and beyond. The result of this was the creation of two reports that were launched on 1st December 2021 in Nairobi, Kenya. 

5. Fostering relationships with the Data Protection offices in Kenya and Mauritius – as a movement we have been able to foster relationships with the Data Protection Offices of the two countries and identify ways in which we could provide technological and other technical support for strengthening them. 

What we have learned so far

The above milestones have taught us that:

1. There’s no “post-covid”, just a new normal. When we started out this work, we had the assumption that it would take a few months before the world conquered COVID-19, and anticipated that there would be a need for structures to revert to normal. We are learning now that there is no “post-covid” world in the short term; we must look at living in the new normal. In that same light, we realise now that instead of discussing restoring data rights, we need to focus our attention on building data rights. 

2. The uptake of citizens signing the declaration and African governments endorsing the declaration has been slow. For a variety of reasons, including that for most CSOs 2020 and 2021 were overwhelming years, many CSOs struggled to stay afloat and most had to prioritise what little capacity they had. One of the other reasons that we found was that the link between the declaration and actual movement by countries was seen as tenuous even as most countries could not list data rights high on their list of important actions.

“Our organisation has had to deal with a massively reduced budget, increased expenses and challenges with delivery of our core programmes. We needed to think through how active we could be in the RDR movement as much as we are in support.” - Leader in a partner organisation.

3. We need to continuously create awareness on data rights with citizens in order to close the knowledge gaps on data rights we witnessed during the #FichaUchi campaign, which was very successful in reaching millions of youth.

"The fact is many Kenyans relate data to the browsing data bundles and they don’t necessarily know about their other data and that’s why they rarely speak about it." #FichaUchi Campaign (quote/comment from a Facebook User)

4. The coordination of continent-wide advocacy during the pandemic is enormously challenging – especially when trying to connect across communities of practice that have not previously worked together. Although there was early momentum around the RDR Steering Committee, the movement has been struggling to adopt a common agenda due to: 

  • The difficulty of working across communities for the first time during a period when many people are hyper-stressed, grieving, over-worked and unable to travel.
  • Our own losses due to COVID-19 within the OI and DataReady teams and families meant that there was a period between November 2020 and April/May 2021 where progress was especially slow due to staff trauma and grief. 

5. National and community level engagement on data governance is more effective than continent-level engagement – We started the programme with a view to engaging more with continental-level stakeholders such as the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU). However, as the project progressed, we identified that the unique value that we add to the data governance conversation in Africa is more so that of development professionals with a keen desire for digital rights, as opposed to ‘digital rights activists’. What this means is that we envisage our impact being greatest in our engagement with policy makers and institutions that work more at the implementation level, as well as with citizens directly. 

More than 4.43 billion people worldwide have received a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, equal to about 57.7 percent of the world population.“ New York Times 

In reality, we realise that there will be no ‘post-COVID-19’ reversion to ‘normalcy’ not only in our daily lives but also when it comes to data. Initially,  we envisioned that rates of COVID-19 infections would drop, however, nearly 2 years since the first incidence of the pandemic was reported globally, it is clearer that COVID-19 will be with us longer. In spite of this, we cannot relent on the risks posed by surveillance technologies that can be deployed to curb the spread of COVID19. For us, the journey continues and we carry on in advocating for more responsible data use in Africa and beyond.

Kindly follow this link to sign the #RestoreDataRights Movement declaration: