From open data to public data


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Is open data just a glorified form of publishing or can its benefits go beyond transparency and reusability? How do you take open data beyond the realms of traditional publishers and data sources and spur people affected by the data to participate and contribute new ideas/data about development (and in effect become open data/development partners)?

The question has been central to World Bank Finances where we recognize the power of transparency but also believe that open data products must reach beyond their traditional audience and stimulate non-traditional uses of open data. Putting this sentiment into action has however been a challenge, and it may be too early for us to claim that we have definitive answers.

Take a look though at the World Bank Finances mobile application as an example of an initiative that promotes transparency but also begins to lay the ground for deeper citizen engagement. The app is great for quick information about the Bank’s financial activities in a country (say if you want to see how much the Bank lends to a particular country, or how much money has been disbursed in a specific project – and it works offline so it can be particularly handy if you are in the field), but we are especially hopeful that the app can eventually become a successful channel for us to engage with the people affected by the Bank’s work and who often have a perspective that the Bank needs to understand better.

There are a couple of ways to do so at the moment – a ‘report’ feature encourages people to tell the Bank if they have reason to suspect fraud or corruption in a Bank project, or if they think that the Bank’s financial numbers are inaccurate/incomplete; and the social option lets people share information in the mobile app via social networks or email. Not quite enough to make the app the ‘Yelp for development’ but a starting point for what we hope will soon become a productive conversation about development (in the context of specific projects and geographies). We need to do a lot of work to make this happen – an ideas contest is in the works, we’re expanding to other mobile platforms, and multi-lingual versions of the app are on their way (speaking with people in their languages is going to be very important) – but we are committed to taking the next step in citizen engagement (and in the spirit of participation welcome your ideas). 

Key challenges remain – the fact that nobody wakes up in the morning planning to participate in a conversation with the World Bank about development is one of them – but we hope that if the mobile app can provide information that makes the Bank’s work real and relevant to people (say by linking mapping data and finances), there may be opportunities to make headway (backed of course by work in the field and partnerships on the ground). What do you think? We hear a lot about asking people to upload photos to share evidence of the Bank’s work – what else would you do to take open data to the people and loop them into an ecosystem where they become more than just consumers of data?

World Bank Finances is part of the Bank’s open data initiative. Please also visit the World Bank Finances website where people can (and do!) filter, visualize, share, and discuss the Bank’s open financial data.


Prasanna Lal Das

Lead Knowledge Management Officer, Trade & Competitiveness

Join the Conversation

Simon Kokoyo
December 12, 2011

I strongly believe that Open Data can stimulate development beyond accountability and transperency discussion. By citizen mapping their own community which was never in web and putting it on there; this then become the basis for dialogue towards something. Open Data is simply making the unknown being known for action.

Open data can can have less i mpact if its target audience will be limited to technocrats, academicians, civil society organizations and government official. Looking at Kenya Open Data website one will notice that is widely used by the people mentioned above. Critical aspect about government expenditure does not rank high...why? This is because the kind of questions a citizen would want answers will rarely be found on this site.

Open Data information should be readable and consumable for action and development. This can be enhance by developing user friendly mobile phone software that will help enhance dialogue. In Kenya many people have mobile phones. This is an area where all agencies involved in Open Data can use.

December 12, 2011

This is really heartening to note about the WB Finances app. While the app most certainly can provide information about the disbursements and actual project finances, has there been any research done on the prevalence of smart phones in the developing world? Cellphone penetration has almost reached its zenith in the developing world, as I read somewhere that there are more cellphones in India now than public toilets. But the question is how many of these phones are 'smartphones' that provide for a seamless browsing experience and let users download the apps. Also, we need to keep in mind the bandwidth issues that people face in the developing and how practical this app can be for the masses.
If there is a way to get this app working for the people on the ground, this could be an excellent tool to not only spread awareness about the developmental work going on in the field, but also can stimulate discussions/conversations around it thus elevating the scope of the project to a whole new level. I am very much intrigued to know about the penetration of the technology in the developing world so that this can certainly help build more avenues to communicate with the concerned audience. While the effort is certainly great, it could prove counterproductive if the app takes too much time to load (not the app developers mistake, but could be bandwidth or other issue) or if there is a charge associated with browsing the internet in their respective countries.

December 14, 2011

Thanks Simon/Anonymous for your notes -- both of you make very fair points about areas we need to address better. The question about smartphone penetration in developing countries is a very pertinent one and we absolutely acknowledge that the Bank can reach only a small slice of the app's intended audience by supporting only the iOS platform (iPad/iPhones). We plan to address this gap in several ways -- one, support for Android phones is coming soon; two, we do offer a mobile web app ( that works on the desktop as well as many smartphone browsers; three, we're planning to introduce an SMS service so people can access some of the same data using non-smartphones; and four, we plan to introduce multilingual versions of the app so we can reach audiences in non-English speaking countries. That still leaves open your questions about costs associated with browsing the Internet (not sure how we can immediately address that...) and poor bandwidth (though I should mention that the app works pretty well offline, so a user should be able to use it - and incur no Web access costs - after downloading the app once).

To the other point about expanding the audience for open data beyond technocrats, academics, etc...we completely agree (I blogged on similar lines here - I also recognize the fact that many open data services may still exclude data that may be of higher value than what's presented, but let's give it a little more time...

Abayneh Girma
March 15, 2012

I fully agree that the idea of open data for development would enhance citizen knowlege/information and participation. For this to happen, it is important to consider and address the challenges in the mechanisms of access. I would also suggest the World Bank to consider initiatives and program in undertaking community listening and community monitoring about development works and information in the open data.