President Zoellick recently announced some pretty big news: the Bank is freeing up much of its data. This is a big policy shift for the Bank, and one that I hope will encourage innovation and increase understanding of development issues among practitioners.
But announcing a new policy that encourages open data is, in it of itself, not enough. Data must also be presented in a way that is easily accessible by both people and computers. This task is not as easy as it sounds, since people and computers understand data in wholly different ways. People generally understand data best when it is visually interesting (perhaps via charts and graphs) and most readily find it when it is searchable on websites such as Google. Computers, on the other hand, cannot easily interpret graphical charts and have little interest in performing web searches. Instead, computers want data to be available in a machine-readable format, usually via an Application Programming Interface, or API. While you might not have heard of them, APIs are all over the web (for example, on Google, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter). They are also the magic behind web mashups, websites which use the functionality or data of external sources in a new or different way. A great example of a mashup is the Bank’s Data Finder, which uses Google Maps as a mechanism to map Bank data.
While making data accessible to both people and computers is difficult and time-consuming, I am excited that the Bank is moving in this direction. For example, you and I will find the Bank's new data website, data.worldbank.org, intuitive and powerful (with more than 2,000 financial, business, health, economic, and human development statistics from the World Development Indicators database, how could one not?). With plans to add additional databases over time, I am sure this website will become one of the world’s primary sources of development data.
But the Bank has also made the data available to computers via its own API, and President Zoellick announced that the Bank will soon be sponsoring an app challenge to encourage external developers to create innovative mashups from these newly available datasets.
As part of this push towards open data, my group has made the previously subscription-based Global Economic Monitor (GEM) website freely available. This website provides daily updates on global economic development in both high-income and developing countries and includes daily-updated data on exchange rates, equity markets, interest rates, and more. Data on the website are now available both in Excel (via a zip file) and in the World dataBank, the Bank's new web interface to downloading data. Over the coming weeks, we will be working towards incorporating the GEM data in the Bank's API as well.
I am truly excited about the possibilities that open data will bring to the Bank and to the world. Please take a moment to look at data.worldbank.org, the Bank’s API, and GEM. We think you’ll like what you find!