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How 'Big Data' Can Benefit the Public Good

Aleem Walji's picture

Patrick Svenburg, co-founder of Random Hacks of Kindness, tells "Developers for Development" audience: "There's no shortage of big ideas in the world.  It's the action part that's often lacking."

“Big Data” –- the billions upon trillions of bytes of digital information that are pumped into cyberspace every nanosecond –- has a single, secular mission: to keep growing. Now, software developers – the not-so-nerdy techies who keep Big Data growing at its feverish rate –- are striving to channel Big Data into the public good.

On Monday at the World Bank, developers came together with the development community -- in person and virtually through Skype video -- to figure out how to do that.

The entire "Developers for Development" can be seen on B-Span, the World Bank's webcasting service.

The afternoon event, which attracted an auditorium-ful of in-person visitors (many of them curious staffers from risk management and ICT at the World Bank) and many more via the live webcast that was offered in English, French, and Spanish, started with developers showing what's already been achieved since the first CrisisCamp about data and the public good was convened in Washington with CrisisCommons-World Bank co-sponsorship in June 2009.

The first demo was about the on-the-fly proliferation of CrisisCamps internationally in response to the earthquake that devastated Haiti in February.

 Schulyer Erle, co-founder, developer, and project steering committee member of OpenLayers, a popular web mapping library, described how  Open Street Map's "ad-hocracy" of developer volunteers quickly filled in the blanks of out-of-date and inadequately detailed Haiti maps for emergency responders:


"Suddenly it became imperative to improve the open source maps for Haiti. It would have been impossible for virtually anyone to go into Haiti and use their GPS receiver [to establish coordinates] and upload their data....You can see looking at this tiny section of the north end of Port-au-Prince [Erle displays a slide of new street details] how literally the first week after the earthquake the data beta was developed by people literally sitting at their desk or in their living room...scanning the satellite imagery that had been made available by"

But how do you wrangle data to do good when you don’t have an earthquake or other catastrophic crisis to focus minds? That was the question for Monday’s participants posed by Michele de Nevers, Senior Manager, Environment Department, World Bank:

"Clearly, the potential application [of this crisis-camp approach] in the broader area of environment and climate change seems obvious....I wonder how easy it is to mobilize volunteers when you don't have this tremendous crisis for motivation....It would be great to get people skilled in this area to bring those skills to helping understand changes in temperature and agriculture in Africa or support vulnerability mapping in fragile states. It would be great to be able to connect the people in your community with the people in our community."

Big Data can't magically supply answers to tough, every-day challenges in developing countries. But the volunteer technical community of the CrisisCamps can help the World Bank make sense of terabytes of data that would overwhelm even the most gifted staff. It doesn't make sense for the Bank to be the sole interpreter of this information or the sole developer of applications and mash-ups using the data. The Bank is well positioned, however, to make large data sets available and to clearly define problems. It's not our job to tell engineers and others how to solve problems but to be aware that if problems are not clear, they are unlikely to be solved. And so we need to keep convening CrisisCamps, especially when there isn’t a crisis of earthquake magnitude.

World Bank Institute's Aleem Walji (third from left) commenting on The Economist magazine cartoon of man using an inverted umbrella to channel part of a torrent of data to start a symbolic garden -- a parable that summed up the discussion on how data can be used for the public good.

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