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.