Let's Move Beyond Open Data to Open Development


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The Sunday Business section of the New York Times prominently featured an image of a huge vault overflowing with bits and bytes. It was a story about the Bank’s Open Data initiative and claimed that datasets and information will ultimately become more valuable than Bank lending. It’s a powerful idea and one that sounds similar to the knowledge bank articulated by Jim Wolfensohn nearly ten years ago. But there is an important distinction between the two. This is not about the World Bank as the central repository of knowledge sharing its knowledge and wisdom with clients from the South. Instead, it’s about “democratizing development economics” in that it levels the playing field on knowledge creation and dissemination and opens the development paradigm to participation from researchers and practitioners, software developers and students, from north and south.

Fundamentally, it’s about culture change within a large expert-led institution. The author suggests that the World Bank’s relevance as a global institution is about leveraging information assets and an ability to connect suppliers and demanders of knowledge to one another. But it also underscores the importance of engaging with information users as well as clients and recognizes a shift to a more open and inclusive development paradigm co-created with clients. 

Culture change is never easy and when information is currency and ultimately power, sharing it is filled with risk and uncertainty. For that reason, opening the Bank’s treasure trove of data more than a year ago had skeptics. Within months, however, traffic to the Bank’s data catalogue exceeded visitors to the homepage and many wondered why and how this data generated so much interest externally. One insight: while World Bank clients are just a handful of countries who take loans, World Bank users are hundreds of thousands of people who look to the institution for information, analysis, and sense-making of the “economic reality of billions of people and the decisions that have an impact on their lives”.

But the Bank still holds enormous amounts of historical data in the form of project evaluations, poverty data, research reports, and the datasets that underlie analytical work. Why not follow the lead of academic journals and make available the data upon which research is based? What about incentives to carry out research in the first place? If knowledge is a key capital base for the Bank, does knowledge increase or decrease in value when shared? Here we can we learn from the OpenCourseWare consortium or even TED. Does the value of a prestigious university decrease when courses are made available online and free? The story of TED suggests the opposite. Although their online talks are now freely available, their brand has only gained in value and demand for their paid offerings has increased. 

So how does this relate to World Bank clients and eventually its clients’ clients? The Bank’s access to information policy is a landmark step for the Bank and lends credibility when addressing Freedom of Information laws in client countries. The Bank’s recent decision to use fiscal transparency as a minimum requirement for access to Bank lending is encouraging to civil society and paves the way for greater transparency and more accountable governments. But there is also citizen data and user generated content that creates opportunities for Governments to listen better to their people and be more responsive to their constituents. When speaking of citizens of the Middle East, President Zoellick has said “they want voice, and accountability…they want information and the right to know, and to participate…they want a new social contract”. But what is the Bank’s role in helping citizens, governments, and business forge a new social contract? Can engagement with private actors, commercial and non-commercial, disrupt the prevailing development paradigm and open the space for non-state actors to shape their own countries, societies, and destinies?

Kenya presents a live case study. A Freedom of Information act has been sitting with the Government for years. The country recently passed a new constitution devolving significant fiscal and political authority to newly created counties. Elections are scheduled for 2012 and there is considerable demand for greater efficiency in the delivery of public services, youth-focused job creation, and improved governance. Against this backdrop, the Kenyans heard about Open Data, Open Government, and saw them as opportunities given their booming IT industry and youthful population. Over a period of 6 months, a handful of Government reformers working closely with a World Bank team paved the way for Kenya to launch one of the first and most comprehensive Open Data portals in Sub-Saharan Africa. The portal will make available multiple years of detailed government expenditure data (at the county level), household survey data, and the 2009 census mapped to the district level.  Citizens will be able to download information directly, compare data within and between provinces, create visualizations including maps and graphs, and most importantly understand the relationship between spending and public service delivery.

This is where the rubber meets the road with Open Data. It’s a shift from opening datasets towards a more open and inclusive model for citizen-centric development. How do we help Kenya for example sustain their early momentum? How can the Bank and other global catalysts help more countries to follow suit and connect reformers in Kenya to counterparts elsewhere in Africa? These are not easy questions but important ones to address in a world where access to knowledge, talent, and innovation may be the resources most valued by countries and their citizens.


Aleem Walji

Director, Innovation Labs

Join the Conversation

Paul Cadario
July 08, 2011

You have put your finger on the issue, Aleem. The huge interest--by those with internet access--in the Bank's data is but one aspect of transparency. But we have to be more willing to engage on what the data mean, be open to others' interpretations, and be prepared to change our own view of what it says and what it means for public policy in our member countries. We also have to encourage governments to take feedback based on their own published data, and journalists to inform their political coverage with data-driven analysis from what governments, and donors, publish. So "open data" is just a necessary step, but hardly a sufficient one.

Aleem Walji
July 08, 2011

Fully agree with these comments. Open Data is a necessary but not sufficient condition to a more participatory approach to development. Opening up is not just about transparency and sharing data. It's about inviting others to help make sense of data, critique it, re-interpret it, and help turn it into knowledge.

But it's also about listening better, being more responsive, and engaging with citizens to help solve pain-points they identify. We've often talked about a continuum that moves from Open Data to Open Development. It's very much a work in progress but includes Open Research, Open Innovation, Open Solutions in the move towards a more Open Development paradigm.

Open Data is an important starting place as the Kenyans and Moldovans have recently recognized. But it's a shift in the whole paradigm that's required to moves us towards Open Development.

Maya Brahmam
July 08, 2011

Open data is the first step toward open development, but people in the countries then need to understand what the data means and how to use it.

Mary Kariuki
July 12, 2011

When one is looking at the issue of OPEN DATA at face value, mostly what one sees is the challenges that comes with open data; for instance, how is the data going to be transformed into information? How are the target group going to be sensitized about data, how to analyze it and interpret it and so forth.

I tend to appreciate this revolutionary period of our time. Open data especially from the government was unheard of in the past. The world bank innovation department has led this massive revoutionary. Though it will take time and undying commitment, if it is well executed and geared towards results and sustainability, then the sky is the limit.

Transparency is just transparency. Transparency will eventually be realised by most agencies and common man through information sharing and accountability. What can lay this foundation better than OPEN DATA? Open data is just the STRONG FOUNDATION. Day by day our innovator, strategist and development oriented persons will build layers of bricks which will eventually turn into a CASTLE called TRANSPARENCY!

I strongly support the mission and KUDOS to Aleem Walji and his support team.

Jeff Takle
July 18, 2011

First, kudos to the World Bank efforts. I was in Nairobi when the Kenya Open Data Initiative went online working with a team to integrate and consolidate healthcare information in the country. We were impressed with both the boldness of the effort and the cleanliness of the interface.

We shouldn't be too hard on these first efforts at data sharing -- this is the first time in all of human history when tremendous amounts of primary research has been made available to virtually anyone on the planet with a cell signal (nearly 2/3 of all people) and it's occurred virtually overnight. We are bound to encounter a steep learning curve.

Regarding transformation of this data into useful information, I wonder if the most efficient path forward is to connect the data directly, integrally into each country's existing educational and research institutions. It can be difficult to tightly channel innovation and insight, so rather than direct "this is how you use information" perhaps just create the conditions for inspiring innovation. These institutions already have a learning mindset, a ready audience, and built in incentives to forge new research insights. What efforts are underway or could be developed to formalize this type of connection in country?

Lastly, I wonder what you think about the balance of power and how that might change -- both for the good and the bad -- when heaps of raw operational data are exposed. On the plus side, it should inspire accountability and development. On the down side, transferring power away from those who have it traditionally results in harsh response. I'm not suggesting that we don't pursue open data b/c those holding power might resist; I'm wondering how best to manage that reality. What strategies are in place at the World Bank for dealing with the political ramifications of this shift in power?

This is truly new territory in human history and what's taken developed countries decades to grapple with, will be thrust upon the developing world in just the next 2-3 years. Rapid change, here we come!

Jeff Takle
Abt Associates

Aleem Walji
July 19, 2011

Thanks for the thoughtful comments Jeff. I think your points about giving open initiatives in places like Kenya some time to settle are right. I'm in Nairobi this week and we're working with the Government to engage data users and civil society actors. That includes academia, media, policy makers, students, and civic hackers. We don't really know what they'll do with the data but making sure they know it exists is our primary aim. People know best what their pain-points are and with the right musicial notes, they can write their own songs.

In terms of the risks of rapid power shifts, open data is not just about transparency and accountability. It's also about forging partnerships with citizens. Unleashing information and working with citizens to use it can create jobs (think weather data in the US), support the growth of new industries (think location based services after GPS data were released), and enable efficiency in public services (help make the trains run on time). It's not without hiccups but the net result can be positive for both governments and citizens.

We remain optimistic at the World Bank and want to help our clients embrace this brave new world by stepping ahead of the curve to avoid being taken by surprise.

Craig Schwabe
July 21, 2011

I have recently been asked to present a keynote presentation at the Global Geospatial Information Management (GGIM) meeting to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in August 2011. I have done extensive research, written papers on the subject and given many presentations on the making of information available for effective decision making in Africa. The key question that I have to asked myself is - has there been a significant change in making information available to the broader public on the continent over the last ten years, especially spatial information. My immediate response is yes but there is a long way to go.

Although the making of the World Bank data available is a major breakthrough that will encourage more informed decisions about foreign direct investment and donor funding being allocated to countries in Africa, we still need information at the smallest spatial unit of analysis possible. Once a decision is made about focusing on a particular country using the World Bank data detailed information is then needed to identify priority area for government interventions to tackle poverty, locating new government services and encouraging the development of new private sector retail facilities. Although the provision of data at a district level is a good start it is not good enough.

South Africa has its own access to information policy but this has not encouraged the provision of more information. Fortunately, South Africa has had access to population data from previous censuses at an enumeration area but in the 2011 census it is not likely that the data will be provided at this level again. Why? The claim is to protect confidentiality. A review of UN Statistics handbooks show ways that the confidentiality can be maintained and the data still provided at the smallest spatial levels.

The reason for not releasing data at small spatial levels can therefore only be attributed to politics or a fear that inaccuracies with the data will be discovered. I wish we could get past this fear and realize that inaccuracies do occur but that having access to more detailed information is imperative if we are target the most needy, optimally locate new clinics or locate a new shopping centre. My belief is that the private sector has a pivotal role to play in leveraging this information and possibly organizations like the World Bank who have muscle.

At this moment in time the navigational GPS companies are purchasing satellite imagery for large parts of the continent. They are capturing the road and street data as well as many of the public and private sector service points. Using this same satellite imagery national bureaus plan for their decennial census, whose data is either never released or released when it is out of date. Why not use this imagery to map the location of all dwellings then update it on an annual basis with household surveys being used to provide demographic estimates for the population. I believe that we will see this happening in Africa in the near future as the importance of information is realized in a world with resources continuing to be scarce and competition increasing in both the public and private sectors. The private sector will lead the ways in using innovative approaches to gather detailed information on countries. Governments will be need to come to the party otherwise they will be left behind in this information economy.

Craig Schwabe