When it comes to statistics, most of us get glossy-eyed pretty quickly when we are listening to an esteemed expert review his or her findings. The exception perhaps is when we are told a compelling story that relates data to our lives. Journalists are not alone is helping us make sense of really complex issues -- software developers have an increasing role to play.
A whole new group of “infomediaries” -- software developers cum truth tellers -- are taking mounds of the data that is increasingly available from national governments, local governments, and now the World Bank Group and giving it new meaning through simple visualizations that tell powerful stories.
For instance, what is the relationship between GDP per capita and health as expressed by life expectancy? Why is it that some countries achieve good progress in reducing infant mortality rates despite low incomes while others grow their economies but fail to make progress in reducing child deaths? These are the sort of questions that arise when good data meets good information architects and master visualizers.
Perhaps the most well-known is Hans Rosling from the Gapminder Foundation . Thanks to him we now think about bubble charts and animations in the same breath as the World Development Indicators. But there are many thousands of aspiring infomediaries present on websites like Many Eyes and Swivel where students, researchers, statisticians, and developers are free to construct their own hypotheses about the world, download data sets, and test whether their variables make sense when visualized in different ways.
Following the World Bank’s recent Open Data launch, the World Bank Institute organized its third Keys to Innovation conversation on Government 2.0: Lessons for Developing Countries. Clay Johnson from the Sunlight Foundation challenged his community of more than 1700 volunteer software developers to use the data (in addition to datasets released by the US government) to create useful applications, mash-ups, and tools that tell a powerful story, ask provocative questions, or simply help users make sense of complex data. Clay likened a good app to a good recipe. Although we have access to countless ingredients, it is those who share their best recipes (think open source) that help the rest of us create appetizing dishes from the same ingredients.
Andrew McLaughlin, Deputy CTO from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and someone with experience in Africa, made a distinction between Open Data and Open Government. While the former is about liberating data sets, the latter is about a whole new paradigm of governance based on principles of openness, participation, collaboration, and effectiveness. While the one requires the latter, it is by no means sufficient to ensure it. The former Minister of Science, Technology, and Scientific Research from Rwanda, Dr. Romain Murenzi, explained that before citizens can enjoy the benefits of Open Government, they must first be granted the intellectual and physical tools to participate in the global commons. He discussed how Rwanda’s foundational investments in education, laptops for school children, mobile telephony, and broadband in the late 1990 are beginning to bear fruit today in Rwanda’s ambitions to become a digital economy in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Finally, Enrique Fanta, Public Sector Specialist from the World Bank’s Caribbean region and, when he was in the Chilean government, one of the key modernization officials, reminded us that “We must first ask people what they want”. It’s not enough to develop tools and products that we in government or international organizations believe to be useful.
This is why value-added infomediaries are so needed – developers and socially driven entrepreneurs – who can make open data meaningful and useful to citizens. Perhaps then it will become much easier for people to describe what they need to make their lives better.