Together with the Congolese government, Cordaid is building an open-source database of more than 60.000 schools in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “This data-driven innovation allows to improve the country’s educational system more efficiently”, says Cordaid’s data management advisor Julie Oliene. Girls are probably the first to benefit.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a country the size of Western Europe. Its population of 85 million people shows incredible resourcefulness in dealing with violent conflicts, natural disasters, epidemics, and degrading levels of poverty. This is true for grown-ups and maybe even more for school-going children.
For any child in the world, attending and completing primary and secondary school is a foundation for life. In Congo, it is also one of the few ways to start working your way out of the clutches of poverty and adversity. Yet, even finding your way to school is a challenging mission for many. Only 6 out of 10 girls complete primary school. And it gets worse after that. Only 3 out of 10 girls attend lower secondary school. It’s even less in upper secondary school age. Compared to boys, the gender gap only widens with age. Finishing school is challenging for boys, for girls, it’s twice as hard.
Inaccurate, incomplete, and inaccessible data
To curb this situation, Cordaid started assisting the Congolese ministry of education in the Project d’Amélioration de la Qualité d’Éducation (PAQUE). This was in 2018. The goal was to improve the quality of education in 1350 schools.
“Without an accurate national database, it’s hard to tell where investments to give children a better education are needed most.”
Julie Oliene, Cordaid data management advisor
From the start, it was clear that to be successful, having accurate data was essential. And that was a problem. Data were dispersed, incomplete, and often not accessible. To begin with, nobody had an accurate overview of the school’s exact locations. “This is why the Congolese ministry of Education and Cordaid jointly started creating a database combining global positioning system (GPS) and key administrative data for the 1350 schools,” says Oliene, who is based in DRC capital Kinshasa.
Today, two years later, we are taking data innovation in Congo’s school system to the next level. But before we expound on that, it’s important to explain why creating and maintaining accurate, complete, and up-to-date civil records is incomparably more difficult in Congo than, say, in the Netherlands.
The challenges of keeping records
There are many reasons. The volatility of armed conflict, insecurity, and natural disasters, the vastness of the country, and the logistical challenges to access isolated areas are obvious obstacles. Poor ICT infrastructure is another one. Then you have different parties, governmental and non-governmental, involved in collecting and validating data, using different standards and different information management systems. Also, in a lot of cases, registers are paper-based. “A lot of the existing databases are inaccurate, incomplete, or inaccessible,” says Oliene.
Until recently, no one had attempted to create one national school database covering the whole country. As a result, no one really knew how many schools there are, where they are, let alone how they are performing. Schools destroyed or abandoned due to conflict or natural disasters could still appear on lists, while recently opened and functional schools could be lacking.
Building the first country-wide school database
This has far-reaching implications. “Without an accurate national database, it’s hard to tell where investments to give children a better education are needed most”, Oliene maintains.
To fill this gap, Cordaid and the Ministry of Education are now in the process of creating the first online database that covers preschools, primary and secondary schools in the entire country. By combining validated data of a series of incomplete sources, they are putting the pieces of the data jigsaw puzzle together.
“By linking school locations to demographic data like population density and satellite imagery, we can tell how far any kid in DRC has to walk to reach a school. And where new schools are most needed.”
Stéphane Dresse, data expert from BlueSquare
The national educational database is open-source, uses international standards, and has the ambition to become a major monitoring tool for any party that wishes to invest and to improve DR Congo’s primary and secondary schools.
A lot more schools than previously thought
Stéphane Dresse from BlueSquare, the Brussels-based data company involved in building the online platform: “We’re building one unified online school pyramid, connecting all schools to all existing administrative levels, from the community to provincial levels. We have already connected 95% of the schools to the pyramid. Gathering GPS information is a bigger challenge. So far, we did this for 10.000 schools. It’s work in progress,” says Dresse.
One of the most striking things this data innovation project revealed so far, is that the number of schools appears to be way higher than generally assumed. “Until now it was estimated that there are 60.000 schools. Data research now shows there are probably many more. It could be up to 100.000, but we’re still in the process of eliminating duplications,” says Oliene.
Walking distance to school
As more GPS and other accurate school data are fed into the database, the possibilities become more advanced. “By linking school locations to demographic data like population density and satellite imagery, we can tell how far any kid in DRC has to walk to reach a school. And where new schools are most needed. Within a year we should be able to produce these accessibility maps,” says Dresse.
“In DRC we have moved further. Data innovation is already taking place.”
Alinda Bosch, Cordaid knowledge and innovation manager
Experts feed all retrieved data into a system that is commonly used in public health management (District Health Information System, DHIS2). “We now use it in the field of education. That makes it innovative. We’re building something that doesn’t exist,” Dresse concludes.
One visual interface of the database is the so-called carte scolaire, or national school map.
Making quality measurable
The ambition is to create an open-source tool that helps to truly monitor, measure, and improve the quality of schools, even in the remotest places. By adding key data about key issues. Like the proportion of girls in total school enrolment. Or the dropout, retention, and completion rates per school, the quality of the classrooms, and the class sizes. The number of functioning water points and latrines and whether the latrines are separated by gender. To name just a few.
In the end, all parties involved work towards the same goal: creating a tool that allows government, schools, NGOs, and donor agencies to be more impactful. And to make sure that more children, especially girls, have better access to education and finish school.
Risks of innovation
Investing in innovations such as these comes with risks and uncertainties. In 2018, Cordaid worked on a similar data innovation project in the Central African Republic. It failed, most importantly because it took too long to access existing data sources.
“But innovating also means having the guts to change and adjust plans. Or to stop them,”, says Alinda Bosch, Cordaid’s Knowledge and Innovation Manager. “In DRC we have moved further. Data innovation is already taking place, thanks to a collaborative effort and a willingness to build this national education data system. Maintained and kept up to date by the Ministry of Education and accessible to all parties, including the parents of school-going children. Allowing policymakers to plan ahead and to prioritize scarce educational resources. And parents to hold schools and governmental authorities accountable,” she concludes.