CIAT Champion of Open Science: Leroy Mwanzia

By Rosemary Nzuki | Dic 20, 2020


Throughout his university studies at Africa Nazarene University, where he studied computer science (B.S. degree), Leroy Mwanzia focused on only one thing: software development. So great was his passion that, after graduating, he turned down a computer networking opportunity at East Africa Breweries Limited and instead opted to become a lecturer at an affiliate training center of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), a job that paid much less. Two years later, he went to a different college to teach the UK-based BTEC Higher National Diploma in Computing.

After four years of sharing his passion with Kenyan youth, Leroy obtained the opportunity to join Ascribe Ltd. (now EMIS Health), a leading supplier of clinical software in the UK and Ireland. Ascribe’s software development hub was based in Nairobi and was one of the most respected software development companies in Kenya.

“This is where I channeled my passion for developing software products that help people,” he said. “I enjoyed my work to the point where I would spend three 16-hour days just to find a solution to a critical software bug.”

He recalled with nostalgia once when he was visiting his mother in the United Kingdom. He went to pick her up from work at a London hospital and, to his pleasant surprise, he noted that the Emergency Care software system the hospital was using was the one that he had worked on at Ascribe.

“I just stood behind one of my Mum’s colleagues and stared for a while,” he said. “This was one of the highlights of my career path: seeing software make a practical difference in people’s lives.”

After almost three years, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) recruited him to provide technical assistance to the Ministry of Education in Kenya. He was to work on the Kenya Educational Sector Support Program (KESSP), a program funded by a group of donors such as the World Bank, DfID, and SNV.

“This is where I got to see the power of data,” he explained. “The ministry was to make decisions on how to improve free primary education based on the results of data analysis from the Education Management Information System (EMIS) I created.”

To demonstrate his point, he asked me, “Do you drink whiskey?” “No,” I quipped, wondering where this was going, as the interview was to talk about his work. He proceeded to give me a quick lesson on the different characteristics of whiskey and how charting these against the different brands could inform one’s choice on what to drink (see chart below).

Data and information expert

That was the beginning of his journey as a data expert. After a year, when DfID stopped supporting the KESSP program, he joined a USAID project and helped the project create a Trade Help Desk online system for the East African community. The project was using data to facilitate trade among East African countries.

While working with trade data, Leroy received a call from World Agroforestry (ICRAF) to attend an interview, after he had forgotten that he had applied for a job six months earlier. Leroy then joined ICRAF as a data systems specialist and there his journey with CGIAR started. This was a good time to join CGIAR as it also coincided with the time the CGIAR centers were beginning to make financial investments into open access and open data. By this time, Leroy was a part-time student pursuing his M.S. degree at the University of Nairobi.

In 2014, after working for three years with World Agroforestry, he joined CIAT as the lead of the Data and Information Management team, a position he holds to date.

It is in his quest to answer the question “What role can data and information play to help CIAT’s vision?” that he started to think about and push for open data.

His thoughts  further crystallized a few months after joining CIAT when he met Director General Rubén Echeverría for the first time. Rubén had asked to meet the team as they made plans for the 2015 business plan. He had walked into the CIAT Board room with a folder full of documents that had been handed to him back in 2009. The documents were on the subject of AAA in CIAT (Availability, Accessibility, and Applicability of data and information products) and he was talking about the history of the topic since he had joined CIAT.

“I was pleasantly surprised and a bit shocked!” Leroy said, laughing. “If the DG remembered a 5-year-old conversation on the topic, I was thinking, I had better do this right, or he will take us to task in a couple of years.”

After conversations with management and taking note that CGIAR had released its Open Access and Data Management policy, which CIAT had adopted in totality, he noted that it was significant for CIAT to change its culture and move into one of openly sharing their data and other information products.

“Openness is good for science because it improves transparency and reproducibility,” Leroy said.

Leroy strongly believes that better quality data will result in better science, and, if we aim to diffuse our research widely, then we must make it open. He advocates that, to obtain good-quality data, researchers have to think about data management early in the project life cycle such as during the inception of the project and not toward the end when they want to publish.

The team has also worked on improving databases, consolidating platforms such as having one database for the breeding management system, and creating reusable research software. An example Leroy gave on reusability is taking the technology they used to create PestDisPlace, a pest and disease monitoring system created in partnership with the CIAT Crop Protection unit, and using it to create other useful tools such as the system that shows CIAT’s global legal presence or the display of all socioeconomic datasets in CIAT.

Working with the CCAFS Data and Knowledge sharing team also helped in fostering an open data culture within CIAT. One of the best culminations of their partnership was the updating and co-branding of the data management support pack.

Faced with the challenge of providing more incentives that facilitate an open culture, Leroy’s team suggested that all information products, including data, be included in performance appraisals and not just peer-reviewed articles as a way to get more outputs openly published. Also, traditionally, only one metric had been used to check the diffusion of research: number of citations. The team therefore looked for alternative metrics for measuring diffusion.

They worked alongside others in CGIAR as part of a community of professionals who work on open access and data management, from all 15 centers. The group, organized as the Open Access group and the Data Management task force, has now been merged into one community of practice coordinated by the Organize module of the CGIAR Big Data Platform.

“So far, we work well in that group,” he said. “The CGIAR Big Data Platform was a game changer in our type of work. Data management as part of the Organize module has given this visibility and has helped show its importance in research.”

Looking back, the numbers now speak for themselves as open access moved from 47% in 2013 to 85% in 2018. In 2019, the team remains on track to meet its target of 87% openness. The number of open datasets averages 40 a year, up from less than 10.

“I am lucky to have a good team in CIAT and good supervisors who strategically directed our work, and we also had very supportive research leaders,” he said. “I struck gold! The CCAFS data team is like our thought twin and the Big Data Platform gives us visibility and funds with which to work.

“When talking about Open Science, this is not the end but the beginning,” Leroy added with a smile.

Over time, his hard work has paid off, as is evidenced by being one of the CIAT Awardees for Best Institutional Support in 2016 and the Big Data Platform selecting him as one of its ambassadors.

Aside from work, Leroy is married and has three children. When he is not bundled up in a quiet spot reading one of his coding books or catching up on tech news, he can be found at his kids’ sports club spending some quality time with his family.