There is a dearth of up-to-date empirical ICT data and analysis in Africa for policymakers, regulators and other sector decision-makers to draw on for purposes of evidence-based policy and regulation. The patchy data that exists for developing countries from multilateral agencies is at best two years old by the time it is collated and published and not all of it is freely available. Operators of course sit on massive databases or what has become referred to as ‘big data’ that have enormous potential, not only for better-informed regulatory decision-making but also the potential to inform wider developmental policy and planning. But, with a few exceptions they have not been willing to put this into the public domain, or onto open data portals.
Yet the dramatic uptake of internet-enabled mobile phones, together with the reduced cost of bandwidth as a result of the recent glut of international bandwidth, has presented new policy and regulatory challenges on the continent, compelling the investigation of next-generation practices and policies.
Recognising that communication ministries across the continent need to collect accurate and timely information for informed internal decision-making, Research ICT Africa (RIA) has collected data and prepared country and comparative reports for evidence-based policy purposes for over a decade. This effort has made this type of decision-making possible through the extensive and longitudinal funding of an integrated, interdisciplinary research programme by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
This funding has enabled the collaboration of research institutions across the African continent to produce the only nationally representative indicators in the public domain to monitor and evaluate ICT policy outcomes. With only five partners in the network when it started in 2003, it grew to cover 20 countries at its height – 17 of which were covered in the 2008 user surveys. The subsequent global economic downturn and associated funding cuts, as well as the failure of African governments to come to the table as intended with the initiative, resulted in only 12 countries being surveyed in 2012. Despite the demonstrable value of the project document below and the dependence of many diverse interests on its resulting data and analysis, surveys may only be conducted in three countries in 2014 where those governments have indicated an interest in co-funding the surveys. Insufficient support from additional governments and agencies responsible for ICT development on the continent coincided with the end of the generous 10-year incubator period to make this a reality.
The travesty from a research perspective of losing the longitudinal insights from the cumulative surveys - already forfeited in the Francophone countries originally in the network - is compounded by the absence of such evidence from future policy formulation and implementation processes in countries where these studies were conducted for over a decade.