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.