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Can Everyone be a Think Tank?

Aleem Walji's picture
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David Eaves, Open Data Blogger and Activist from Canada, boldly claimed that the World Bank's Open Data Policy allows many more people to use our data, rigorously study and analyze it, and draw their own conclusions about what it means. That was just not possible before now.  

It reminds me of what the laptop, digital camera, and mobile phone did for journalists and film makers. Technology fundamentally leveled the playing the field and democratized access to content. Suddenly, many more people could participate in journalism and create their own videos (24 hours of video is uploaded into YouTube every 60 seconds). Is that what the World Bank's Open Data policy can unleash? I love the possibility.


While the World Bank formally announced its Apps for Development Challenge today, and beta launched a Mapping for Results platform, David was just as interested in democratizing the ability to analyze data, do research, and challenge conventional conclusions. The truth is it was never previously possible to argue with development economists and other technical specialists when you didn't have access to the same information and tools.

But as President Zoellick announced at Georgetown last week, the World Bank's vision for research involves framing important development problems, making our underlying data sets available to researchers and students everywhere, and letting a thousand flowers bloom. Feels like distributed computing to me. Whereas before, corporations purchased supercomputers to do super-complicated tasks, today, leveraging the power of thousand of PCs exceeds the computing power of any single machine. So what can thousands of one-person think tanks working alongside academic institutions, and institutions like the World Bank achieve? That's what we're about to find out.

But we can't expect elegant solutions overnight. When it comes to disruptive ideas, we overestimate results in the short-term but underestimate impact in the longer-term. David Eaves reminded us that when libraries were built in the US in the 1920s or when the printing press emerged in the 15th century, things didn't change overnight. In fact, with libraries it was those who could read that benefited most initially.  And the printing press eliminated the jobs of thousands of scribes. But who would argue today that libraries didn't bring knowledge into the hands of millions of people and the printing press didn't democratize access to information. Is Open Data on a similar trajectory? Our panel certainly believed this to be the case. Hans Rosling described data as the intellectual sidewalk of the modern economy and David Eaves suggested data is the plankton of the 21st century knowledge society. We certainly don't want to over-promise but I'm excited about where this is all heading.

What do you think?

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on
Even if greater access on balance is good, we shouldn't overlook the tradeoffs. The average quality of "journalism" and "film-making" has declined precipitously since technology and deregulation "democratized" access. Similarly, providing data and software does not necessarily democratize the ability to conduct high-quality data analysis and research. Journalism schools and PhD social science programs don't exist merely to restrict access; they establish and maintain standards of quality and ethics, in journalism and in development research.

Submitted by Nibras Aldibbiat on
This approach is very interesting. It bears the potential of revolutionising the way we think about and interpret data by allowing any person to freely contribute their ideas. As mentioned above, it might take sometime to notice the impact of this initiative but looking at the long term, it would make perfect sense to have high levels of expectation and optimism. However, it would be worth thinking about few questions in this regard. First, if local people in developing countries have access to data, do they have the capacity to read and analyse this data? If yes, then are they empowered enough to bring about change or even see their analysis and thoughts being considered seriously? I know this whole approach is at an embryonic stage but it would be appreciated if you could tell us whether the World Bank has any vision of the next steps and how to deal with the results of this initiative. It seems to me that we may soon have more data and analysis than our capacity to make beneficial use of these resources. Would that not be frustrating? As always, very interesting and thought-provoking efforts. Thank you,

Submitted by Aziz N on
There was a great Ted Talk a few months back that essentially argued that good ideas are a product of the brain synthesizing information from different sources, and that the more minds you are able to interact with, the greater the likelihood of an "Aha" moment (http://on.ted.com/8c1r). While data is certainly an amazing tool off of which problems can be identified and solved, it is just one of many tools necessary in solving some of the most complex problems the world faces. A challenge that will be faced going forward is how to get this data in front of the correct knowledge leaders of our society. Unfortunately, there is a large amount of talent that does not actively seek to be a individualized think-tank, but yet may have the background and skills required to solve challenges that others in the field may not. Is it then possible to take this data and create a network which actively seeks the input and knowledge of industry and knowledge leaders who would not otherwise seek this information, in order to get a multitude of viewpoints and ideas which the development community may not be privy to? As crowdsourcing makes waves in the business world we should also begin to think about how we can use similar practices, in tandem with this newly available data, in order to attract more minds. This is a fantastic and exciting step taken by the World Bank. Hopefully it will lead to a paradigm shift of how information should be shared and accessed by all leading global institutions.

Submitted by Arvind Gupta on
Great initiative! It could unleash a diversity of thinking, analysis, monitoring and advocacy; thus reducing the risk of getting locked into groupthink about development. Let a thousand points of view and analysis bloom! Distributed computing could be powerful. For some time now it has been used by research groups in diverse disciplines to lower costs of data mining, sorting, shifting and computation. SETI for example has had for many years a nifty downloadable app that harnesses the power of million PCs to run in background an app that analyzes radio signal data collected by SETI radio telescopes. Similarly, a number of researchers in Chemistry provide downloadable apps that use PC downtimes to tackle problems in combinatorial chemistry and accelerate the process of drug discovery. Would be great to have downloadable development data apps for PCs/iPads/mobile et al; such that these devices could in background run apps dedicated to mining development data and/or working to solve parts of a complex computational problem in development. The next stage could be to also get the word out to groups in developing countries and get them engaged in debating, advocating and monitoring aid flows and outcomes. The low cost opportunity is powerful.

I see the provocative nature of my blog post this morning has spurred reactions. That's why I write. To be clear, the argument about expanding access to data, tools, and information is not to suggest that education, training, and professional standards are any less important. It is to suggest, however, that "throwing open our doors at the World Bank" is about the recognition that we don't have a monopoly on knowledge, analytical rigor, research capacity, or publishing. There are many more development economists, statisticians, health experts, education experts, etc. outside the Bank than inside the Bank. It reminds me of the rather humbling professional addage, "no matter who you work for, there are smarter people who work outside your organisation". We've recognized it and rather than being intimidated by it, we're inviting others to help us think better, do better, and co-create solutions. That's the crux of the argument and the impulse that is driving the Bank's Open Knowledge, Open Solutions vision (building on Open Data). Questions of political will and openness to this agenda between countries will obviously vary. But as David Eaves pointed out perhaps the defining political question of 21st century statecraft will be about how to open, what to open, and how to manage both opportunities and risks.

Submitted by Vitor Ol on
Hi, Aleem Can you please, read my article on the page above and evaluate my idea of an innovation on Economics? Is it really good? Since I'm using only Twitter and Posterous to debate the idea, people who do give attention to it think it is very interesting and disruptive. But those people are few. Real think tanks that I tried to talk through Twitter simply ignored my message, perhaps because the idea is too unusual for them to digest. Only one now dead think tank once kindly exchanged emails with me about my monetary ideas: Mr. Milton Friedman. You can read the article at http://tinyurl.com/2725adu or follow me on Twitter @NobelEconomics (a way to call for attention). Consider help me submitting the idea for a real think tank to evaluate it. I am that one that synthesized information and, as far as I know, generated an idea but still haven't found the way to research an test it further. Can the World Bank help me researching it?

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