The role of open data in development
At the Open Government Data (OGD) camp this year, David Eaves, a Canadian open data and public policy activist, gave an excellent keynote talk highlighting some of the challenges that lie ahead in the world of OGD.
He made some interesting points which I’ll share and add to with a perspective from international development. In short: building international development open data portals will help to create a more effective, data-literate aid sector; openness fosters a culture of learning and improvement, and if you’re doing something interesting with data, talk about it.
We built libraries to help citizens become literate
Across the world, an increasing amount of government data is being released through online portals. Only last week, the UK government released details of all spending over £25,000. In due course, with initiatives such as data.worldbank.org, AidData and IATI leading the way, good quality data on international development needs, actions and outcomes will become readily available.
David’s analogy is important: just as libraries weren’t built for people who were already literate, open data portals aren’t just for a “small elite of hackers and policy wonks”. When the western world got busy building libraries in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were built on the belief that they would act as hubs to help citizens become literate, and in doing so benefit society as a whole.
In the world of international development, opening up data and building portals that offer convenient access for users may seem like nerdy technical endeavours now, but these are the first steps towards a more effective, data-literate development sector. Fundraisers, researchers, policy experts, administrators, consultants, field workers, local staff, community activists and the individuals who are directly affected by aid will benefit from better access to information they can use.
We need a patch culture
Open data leads to behavioural and cultural changes. At the OGD camp last week, during a session on measuring the impact of open data, one participant spoke of a conversation between two British MPs. The conversation went along the lines of (paraphrasing): MP1: “Does opening up this data make any difference?” MP2: “Have you claimed less on your expenses since the parliamentary expenses scandal?” MP2: “Yes, of course…” MP1: “Well then yes, opening up government data does make a difference.”
David’s point is a little broader. Governments, development agencies and donors are constantly showcasing their success: they want to be seen as getting things right the first time, and so can end up being rather secretive. As a result, people (and the media) jump to the worst conclusions when they do find something out – since institutions don’t actively disclose what they’re doing, when someone does spot a mistake, the reaction is “Gotcha! You’re clearly evil and were trying to hide that.”
A culture of openness can calm things down. In the world of open source software, if someone finds a problem with the program, they file a bug report, the developer is grateful (and perhaps slightly embarrassed), a “patch” or a fix to the code is released and the result is better software for everyone. Open data would encourage this kind of patch culture in international development – a mistake or a problem if spotted, could be seen as an opportunity to learn and improve rather than front page news.
Let’s balance advocacy with action
The biggest user of open data on international development will be the international development sector itself. Sure, journalists and the general public will make some use of the information but those who stand to gain the most are donors, civil society organisations and recipient country governments. Over the last two years, a lot of political effort and advocacy work has gone into getting aid institutions to publish data in a standard format. This needs to be rewarded with tangible examples of what can now be done. The supply of information is assured if there’s a demonstrated demand.
Competitions like Apps for Development are a good way of encouraging use of data but I’d encourage anybody who is thinking or is already using open international development data to shout about it! We’d be happy to talk more and feature interesting examples on our website.
With a good set of examples, patterns and common practices, the use of data will become embedded in development practice. Better information will make aid more effective: data portals improve data literacy, an open culture promotes learning, and using information to add value in the aid sector will ensure data remains open and will promote the release of more.