Saturday, February 11, 2012

Open Data for Better Development

The Council on Foreign Relations recently hosted a piece by Isobel Coleman discussing the growing use of "open data" in supporting development. 

A few excerpts are below and the entire short commentary linked here along with comments: 

Open data is the new thing in development. In the last three years, the World Bank, the United States, the United Kingdom, Kenya, and now the new Open Government Partnership have made raw data available to the public in forms that can be manipulated and interpreted by techno-savvy people to improve governance. The implications of this are huge, although we are just at the beginning of realizing the potential benefits. 

Over the long term, providing greater access to raw information – including census tallies, government expenditures, poverty statistics, draft budgets, agricultural data, and government procurement – could make the delivery of public goods far more efficient and effective, lower levels of corruption, and engage citizens in the running of their societies in profoundly new ways.

World Bank President Robert Zoellick, an evangelist on the subject of open data, sees it as a way to demystify development economics and bring new brain power to bear on solving the world’s thorniest problems. As he said in a speech at Georgetown in 2010: We need to recognize that development knowledge is no longer the sole province of the researcher, the scholar, or the ivory tower. It’s about the health-care worker in Chiapas recording her results; it’s about the local official posting the school budget on the classroom door so that parents can complain when their children are shortchanged; it’s about the minister, the academician, the statistician, and the entrepreneur comparing notes on the impact of incentives.

In a very different context,Kenya, too, has been a leader in providing raw data in a useful format to its citizens. In partnership with the World Bank, Google, and Ushahidi (just ranked tenth among the best NGOs in the world by Global Journal), the Kenyan government began making census data available. It has since made available hundreds of more data sets – including budgets and expenditures, health care and education data – that can be downloaded on computers or mobile phones. The process has spawned initiatives by social entrepreneurs who are using the data in new ways, and developers who are designing useful apps.

Can open data in areas such as education, health, and infrastructure spending, limit corruption and improve service delivery? Well, there is a great deal of infrastructure and support needed to translate free information into policy changes. Portals will only be useful if high quality, up-to-date data is posted on a regular basis, and it can be very difficult to collect high-quality data in some developing countries (only two of the 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have high collection standards for agricultural data). Low levels of literacy and still-limited access to technology are additional barriers. But the rapid spread of cell phones opens up new opportunities.

Open data is not an end in itself; rather, it is a potentially powerful means to improve governance by empowering people – through information – to demand better, more efficient, less corrupt services. At its core, open data mandates a reform of government through legislation that facilitates cooperation between ministries, departments, and agencies; capacity building in public administration; and dedicated funding to support these initiatives. There is much more to be said on this topic, so stay tuned.

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