The recent move by Kisumu County Government – one of the 47 counties in Kenya to test an interactive WhatsApp platform in the quest of its adoption to hasten info-sharing with business communities, residents and visitors has drawn mixed reactions from tech experts.
From the face-value all looks pretty since one only needs to send the word “hello” from a WhatsApp account to +254 756 742 421 and the message prompts the county digital assistant to release a drop-down menu that asks the user to select a code representing their area of interest.
Levit Nudi, one of the innovators behind the innovative platform notes that when one sends the “hello” word, the app gives the sender an automated “welcome” response which grants the platform visitors to get information on anything.
From the technological perspective, the app is similar to Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) codes, sometimes referred to as “Quick Codes” or “Feature codes”, a communications protocol used by Global System for Mobile to communicate with the mobile network operator’s computers. The only variance is that it operates on WhatsApp, which is not a common thing to find anywhere,” said Nudi who projected that future plans for the application include creating codes for information on county jobs, tenders, and other opportunities.
Voices unconvinced that using WhatsApp a Global Big Tech company owned by Facebook with dismal local presence in the country argue that WhatsApp seem to be steadily amassing enough power that may to take on an entire government.
Observing that the situation is getting worse, Patrick Maina, an Independent Public Policy Analyst with Indigenous Innovations is assertive that using WhatsApp (or Telegram) is a risky affair. He points out that in the spirit of promoting transparency, official government communications should be auditable and traceable a tenet that WhatsApp doesn’t uphold.
“Since WhatsApp is not premised in the country and we have no idea exactly how it works other than what Facebook tell users, the Kisumu’s move could potentially expose the county communications to faceless entities who might not have Kenya’s interests at heart.”
Patrick Maina, Independent Public Policy Analyst with Indigenous Innovations
“WhatsApp, as I know it, is designed for opaqueness and not suitable for official public sector use,” Maina opined while challenging the Kenyan government to instead offer tech start-ups the opportunity to innovate viable solutions. He posed: “We claim to have a thriving tech scene. Why not offer tenders to tech startups based in the county for a local solution to create jobs and boost the Medium and Small Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) here in Kenya?”
Maina stressed: “Since WhatsApp is not premised in the country and we have no idea exactly how it works other than what Facebook tell users, the Kisumu’s move could potentially expose the county communications to faceless entities who might not have Kenya’s interests at heart.”
Maina is assertive that in event of a security breach Facebook does not have significant local presence and assets to be held accountable in Kenya would create jurisdiction and diplomatic complications should there be problems and quips: “Is the risk worth it?”
Last year, WhatsApp rejected the Government of India’s demand of building message traceability. India’s push for WhatsApp to find a technology solution to trace the origin of messages was motivated with the belief that it would help curb horrific crimes like mob-lynching emanating from fake news.
However, WhatsApp rejected the idea of building traceability stressing that it will not weaken the privacy protections it provides and won’t therefore undermine the end-to-end encryption and the private nature of the app.
In the recent past, WhatsApp has drawn flak over its platform’s use in spreading fake news through its platform.
Loss of opportunity
Reflecting from the perspective of extensibility should the county want monetised services, Maina asserts that there will be more complicated issues since revenue share with a foreign entity squarely takes money out of Kenya. In his view, the best initiatives are those that would bring money into the county or country.
Maina argues that perennial loss of opportunity to develop local capabilities hinges on Kenya relying on “free” (subsidized / data supported) technology, by rent seeking multinationals, a move that blocks the development of the local tech scene.
“This is how textiles bowed out to “mitumba” (second hand clothes and wares) industry, which Kenya is now locked into and cannot exit without some serious consequences from the US (which aggressively protects its businesses).
Maina urges the government officials to be cautious and strategic when making ICT choices and to try using the plenty locally available expertise across the multiple ICT disciplines that should be considered when selecting an official app.