Data scientist may be the sexiest job of the current century, and everybody in the world may be crying hoarse over the growing shortage of data scientists, but if you are leading an international development project or an international development agency, chances are you don’t have a data scientist on your team and you likely aren’t looking for one. That’s a problem.
Prasanna Lal Das's blog
Nobody cares about open data. And they shouldn’t. What people care about are jobs, clean air, safety and security, education, health, and the like. And for open data to be relevant and meaningful, it must contribute to what people care about and need.
We wrote a few weeks ago that the private sector is increasingly using open data in ways that are not only commercially viable but also produce measurable social impact. What is missing is financing that can help catalyze the growth of data fueled businesses in emerging economies. We are developing a fund that will address this precise need.
Companies such as Climate Corporation, Opower, Brightscope, Panjiva, Zillow, Digital Data Divide and many others have shown that it’s possible to be disruptive (in established sectors such as agriculture, health and education), innovative (across the data spectrum - from collection to storage to analytics to dissemination), profitable, and socially impactful at the same time (see Climate Corporation’s Ines Kapphan, Metabiota’s Ash Casselman, and the GovLabs@NYU’s Joel Gurin talk about how how open data based companies are tackling complex, sophisticated development problems in high-impact business sectors – their path breaking work is clear evidence of the growing maturity of the industry).
Changes to the supply and demand of data are restructuring privileged hierarchies of knowledge, with amateur hackers and machine-readable technology becoming a central part of its analysis. Traditional experts may be hoping for a gradual evolution, but a parallel revolution led by practitioners in the private sector may already be underway. Prasanna Lal Das argues that partnerships will need to incorporate these new practitioners because for them, the data revolution is already a fact of life.
This isn’t the first age of revolution, but this one feels like it might not last 100 years. Our world is transmogrifying in front of our eyes – sometimes more forcefully than others – and the traditionally dry world of data, dominated by dons and ‘experts’, hasn’t been immune to changes either. It might even be the spark for at least some revolutionary fervour, especially since the report of the high level panel of eminent persons on the post-2015 development agenda called for a ‘data revolution’ to ‘strengthen data and statistics for accountability and decision-making purposes’. The official data revolution has however unfolded slowly, sometimes making one wonder if it’s going to be a revolution of the bureaucrats, by the bureaucrats, and for the bureaucrats. Or if it will be a revolution that truly changes how we measure our world, what we measure in it, and who does the measurements.
How do you take the same data that everybody has access to and convert it into a billion dollar business? When do you look at all the data in the world and say you want more (and that you are going to collect it like no one has done before)? How do you stop worrying about open data, and begin solving development challenges instead? Who is doing what with open data and how and why?
Can open data lead to reduced energy consumption (and therefore slow down climate change)? Can open data help improve maternal health services (and thus improve facets of public delivery of services)? Can open data help farmers and crop insurers make better crop predictions (and thus lead to smarter investment decisions in agriculture)? Can open data empower citizens to fight back against police corruption (and thus help promote the rule of law)?
Our world is awash with increasing amounts of data, but potential audiences for this data remain under-served for the most obvious of reasons - the data just doesn’t speak their language.
This has been true for the data on the World Bank Group Finances website which has only ‘spoken’ English since it was launched. Yes, we should have done this earlier but the website, and its associated open datasets, are now available in 5 new additional languages - Chinese, French, Hindi, Russian, and Spanish . The mobile app has been available for some time in 9 languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Hindi, Indonesian Bahasa, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish) and the new release of the website is in line with the program’s quest to include new audiences and communities in the use and dissemination of open financial data.
The final report from the Big Data for International Development DataDive came out a few days ago (see below) and the obvious question is what's next? Sure, the DataDive was a success in terms of the number and caliber of people that participated, the ambition and scope of the problems they worked on (mostly around better/faster/cheaper poverty measurement, and more effective/proactive fight against fraud and corruption), and the results that were achieved in a very short span of time (showing fairly conclusively that big data based approaches can be effectively applied in the context of international development). The report itself points out a few next steps (a data competition, specific action items against each project that the teams worked on, the need to embrace new types of data skills and techniques, and continued effort to open new and more diverse data from both private and public sources) but here is a look at some other themes that emerged during the dive that are probably also worth thinking about -
Open data for business is suddenly the rage. The Economist calls it the new goldmine, the new open data policy released by the US government explicitly links open data with 'entrepreneurship and economic growth', a Capgemini report recently valued the impact of open data on the EU27 economy at 32 billion Euros in 2010, other estimates put the potential of open data in Europe at 180 billion a year, McKinsey valued health data alone at $350 billion annually - the numbers are eye-popping and 'no one has a clue what breakthroughs open data will allow'. The conversation around open data has definitely shifted beyond transparency, accountability, and civic engagement.
- open finances
Photo Credit: Neil Fantom
A more detailed recap will follow soon but here’s a very quick hats off to the about 150 data scientists, civic hackers, visual analytics savants, poverty specialists, and fraud/anti-corruption experts that made the Big Data Exploration at Washington DC over the weekend such an eye-opener.