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Case Study: Open Data in the Governance of South African Higher Education

December 06, 2016 by François van Schalkwyk, Michelle Willmers, Laura Czerniewicz

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The availability and accessibility of open data has the potential to increase transparency and accountability and, in turn, the potential to improve the governance of universities as public institutions. In addition, it is suggested that open data is likely to increase the quality, efficacy and efficiency of research and analysis of the national higher education system by providing a shared empirical base for critical interrogation and reinterpretation. The Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) has developed an online, open data platform providing institutional-level data on South African higher education. However, other than anecdotal feedback, little is known about how the data is being used. Using CHET as a case study, this project studied the use of the CHET open data initiative by university planners as well as by higher education studies researchers. It did so by considering the supply of and demand for open data as well as the roles of intermediaries in the South African higher education governance ecosystem. The study found that (i) CHET’s open data is being used by university planners and higher education studies researchers, albeit infrequently; (ii) the government’s higher education database is a closed and isolated data source in the data ecosystem; (iii) there are concerns at both government and university levels about how data will be used and (mis)interpreted; (iv) open data intermediaries increase the accessibility and utility of data; (v) open data intermediaries provide both supply-side as well as demand- side value; (vi) intermediaries may assume the role of a ‘keystone species’ in a data ecosystem; (vii) intermediaries have the potential to democratise the impacts and use of open data – intermediaries play an important role in curtailing the ‘de-ameliorating’ effects of data-driven disciplinary surveillance.. The report concludes as follows: (i) despite poor data provision by government, the public university governance open data ecosystem has evolved because of the presence of intermediaries in the ecosystem; (ii) by providing a richer information context and/or by making the data interoperable, government could improve the uptake of data by new users and intermediaries, as well as by the existing intermediaries; and (iii) increasing the fluidity of government open data could remove uncertainties around both the degree of access provided by intermediaries and the financial sustainability of the open platforms provided by intermediaries.