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MENA Region IODC16 Roundup: A Promising Year for Data in the MENA Region

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[This blog originally appeared on the International Open Data Conference (IODC) website. This post reflects on the regional discussions about the Middle East an North Africa that took place at IODC16.]

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By: Nancy Salem

Nancy Salem is a Senior Research Specialist at the Access to Knowledge for Development Center at the American University in Cairo, working on the project ‘Harnessing the Economic Power of Data in the Middle East and North Africa’, focusing on the the role and potential of data in economic and community development in the MENA region. Salem completed her MSc in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London and holds a BA (Double Major) in History and Multimedia Journalism from The American University in Cairo.

As part of the series of Regional Talks held at IODC 2016, a diverse set of panelists from the Middle East and North Africa converged to review activities and promising initiatives taking place in the region.

A growing community of data projects and partnerships was discussed during the talk. A Data-Driven Innovation week held in February 2016 by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) was highlighted as a high point for the region, bringing together numerous attendees from all over the region to showcase work and build collaborations.

The talk was moderated by Raed Sharif, Senior Program Officer of IDRC’s Networked Economies team, who has been heavily involved with data and open data projects throughout the region.

Jennifer Colville, who manages the Innovation portfolio for the MENA Region in the UNDP regional office in Amman, emphasized the need for more and better data in the region, paired with better access, usability, and data literacy. Much of the UNDP’s work focuses on garnering interest on both the demand and supply side of data, looking to further burgeoning partnerships in the region.

This point was further highlighted by data researcher Nancy Salem from the Access to Knowledge for Development Center at the American University in Cairo. The Data Revolution project at the Center has been mapping out the larger ecosystem of data in the region, with partners in Morocco and Palestine. Building a multidisciplinary community has been essential to this effort, bringing in “unusual suspects” into the scope of data.

Jazem Halioui, Founder and Director of Webradar from Tunisia, showcased the country’s progress in open data. Several ministries have launched open data portals, and budgets have been consistently opened for the past 2-3 years. The  constitution additionally has ensured the right to access to info, right to privacy, and includes open government principles.

Both Ali Rabaie, Data Scientist and CEO of Rebaie Analytics Group from Lebanon, and Dr. Hossam Abdel Gawad, Professor at Cairo University and Director of SETS North Africa, heavily underlined the abundance for data driven innovation in the region.

Rabaie praised a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem while looking for more mentorship in the region. The successful Lebanese startup LittleBits was highlighted.

Abdel Gawad underscored both the potential of a large population of youth and the new opportunities created by technology . He pointed to a mass of data created by connected devices, which creates value that can be used in different sectors.

For the upcoming year, the different panellists emphasized the need to build upon the community that has begin to form between the different partnerships and initiatives. There is specific focus on the possibilities of data for development, as well as data-driven innovation. There is a demand for open data in the MENA region, and capacity building across sectors should continue to strengthen progress made thus far.