Last week, on my way home from work, I met a young man raising funds for a charity. He stood outside of a subway station and as part of his pitch, he asked, "if you could have any superpower, what would it be?" I offered the same answer I have been giving my children for years. "I have a superpower. It's reading." I suspect this both annoys and inspires my children. Given that annoying and inspiring are among my favorite parental duties, I rather like this answer.
Since then, a few things have happened that are making me want to revise my response to that young man.
The Sunlight Foundation recently announced its "new major focus" of "local government transparency," and this has me doing a lot of thinking about the work I do within my community and city I live in.
I have come to realize something exciting. It turns out I have another superpower - I'm average.
In my community, I'm an average person, who has found herself working closely with government (in my case, to make city schools better). In this role I have a voice I use confidently, without fear of not being re-elected, of being let go, getting passed up, or whatever it is we fear when we don't take risks... Through this work, I have witnessed great success that can occur when average people and government work together.
I have also discovered there's a secret ingredient: transparency.
When I think about the community work I am most proud of, I can't help but identify transparency as the fundamental element that has made good work possible. In my favorite example, three years ago parents from nine community elementary and middle schools came together and articulated a shared vision for how the school system should approach improvements to middle schools. The school system eventually embraced a large part of this vision, extended it to more schools, and has actually begun to implement it.
In this case, transparency made it possible for a community of average people to have an informed productive conversation with government, make sensible 'asks' based on facts, and plan for solutions that are feasible and beneficial. Transparency also made it possible to bring the greater community along as plans were communicated broadly, shared openly, and meaningful feedback captured.
Since then, I have joined the local Code for America chapter, CodeforDC. I joined because I see a great deal of potential not only for meaningful collaboration with local government but also potential to bring the "average person's" voice to a new level- making fact-gathering and analysis easier for folks with ideas on how to improve the community. In the case of education, with facts (ahem, data) in hand, I hope we will build tools or apps that can supplement the work of government, or perhaps model how government should work. If not tools, then provide enlightment or lead to an epiphany that can benefit not one school, not one neighborhood, but one city... And perhaps go beyond that and benefit one country... And why stop there right? After all, there are Code4Kenya and Code4EU...
All of this brings me to what I affectionately call my 'day job'. For a year and a half, I have managed the World Bank's open finances website. In its early days, our goal was to offer better information (via open financial data) for use by officials from the Bank's member countries, while also exploring how to reach other audiences who could do good things with the data. We have worked to reach journalists, researchers, civil society organizations, and even average people.
Thinking again about transparency, I am drawn to open data because of my own experience in interacting with government agencies as an average person. Back to my community work, I know the frustration of spending hours combing through school enrollment data and copying and pasting it from static pages in order to get a sense of the big picture. However, through this manual time-consuming work, we (average people) are better prepared to have productive informed conversations with government officials. This has laid the foundation for a collaborative approach to meeting our goals. In the case of the school's work, in order to be well-prepared, we didn't need the government to design reports or commission studies. All we needed was the data. Open data made a lot of sense then and makes a lot of sense today, especially in the hands of average people motivated to work with government on improving their communities.
Just as I believe my city has an obligation to open data that impacts our lives, I believe the World Bank, given its work meant to benefit average people, has a clear obligation to do the same. I am proud of the strides we have made towards this end so far, but we certainly can do better.
I attended the launch of the Open Gov Hub recently and am inspired by remarks made by World Bank Managing Director, Caroline Anstey. She challenged those in the room to tell her if we knew of data that should be open. Caroline's call to action coupled with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim asking #whatwillittake to end poverty urges us to act and take risks. This has inspired a strong sense of urgency to do my part in meeting this obligation to open data that could, as Bono recently put it, "turbocharge the fight against poverty". There are tons of data, financial and beyond, that if released, could help average people and citizens ask informed questions, give meaningful feedback on the Bank's efforts, and even pursue job opportunities on Bank-funded projects in their own communities.
I believe to release this data quickly, we need a push from the outside. Just like my city officials need me to push to them, we need you to push us. So I challenge you, average person, to summon your superpower and use your voice. Ask for the data. Tell us what will help you have an informed meaningful conversation with the Bank and with the officials implementing the work, the more public and specific the request the better.
And once you succeed in your efforts, reward us with your own transparency- by sharing how this data helped you to advocate for your community and to make it better. This will not only motivate and help us to open more data, but will hopefully also inspire others. Let's get to it.
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