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Open Data has Little Value if People Can't Use It

Craig Hammer's picture

This post is one of a 3-month Harvard Business Review series, focused on scaling entrepreneurial solutions and benefitting society through technology and data.  The full HBR.org series is available here, and was launched with support from The Bridgespan Group and the Omidyar Network

Open data could be the gamechanger when it comes to eradicating global poverty. In the last two years, central and local governments and multilateral organizations around the world have opened a range of data — information on budgets, infrastructure, health, sanitation, education, and more — online, for free. The data are not perfect, but then perfection is not the goal. Rather, the goal is for this data to become actionable intelligence: a launchpad for investigation, analysis, triangulation, and improved decision making at all levels.

While the "opening" has generated excitement from development experts, donors, several government champions, and the increasingly mighty geek community, the hard reality is that much of the public has been left behind, or tacked on as an afterthought. So how can we support "data-literacy" across the full spectrum of users, including media, NGOs, labor unions, professional associations, religious groups, universities, and the public at large?

Here's one approach. It's time and resource intensive, but crucial — institutionalizing data literacy across societies. Stay with me on this. I'm not suggesting that everyone on planet Earth should be trained in statistical analysis, visualization and app development. Rather, let's work more with journalists and civic groups. Knight Fellow Justin Arenstein calls these folks "mass mobilizers" of information. O'Reilly Media's Alex Howard points to these groups in particular because they can help demystify data, to make it understandable by populations and not just statisticians. Bono calls this factivism.

After all, shouldn't everyone have the option to inform their own decision-making if they want to? Isn't that what democratizing data is really about?

Here's the good news: Data interrogation and visualization tools are increasingly user-friendly and freely accessible, such as a suite of tools supported (or competing for support) by the Knight Foundation. And pithy, digestible data literacy training materials are ubiquitous (from School of Data to KDMC tutorials to For Journalism to Data Journalism Bootcamps.) It's early yet, but the playing field is starting to level, giving journalists and members of the public better access to data that previously only governments or large private companies could sift through.

Take Irene Choge, a journalist for NTV in Kenya. Irene participated in a Data Journalism Bootcamp in Nairobi convened by the World Bank Institute, the African Media Initiative, and Google in January 2012. This was an intensive, hands-on training program designed to give journalists, civil society members, and coders a crash-course in practical techniques and tools needed to harness open data for storytelling.

At the time, Choge was searching for answers as to why primary school students' grades were at a record low in two particular Kenyan counties — a trend that wasn't reflected in the rest of the country. Using data interrogation skills she acquired during the training, she began to explore Kenya's Open Data platform, analyzing student grades per primary school. She then examined county-level expenditures on education infrastructure — specifically, on the number of toilets per primary school. Then she scrutinized disease levels among primary school students. Armed with this information, Choge visited the counties, investigated, interviewed, triangulated, and produced a series of stories (starting with this one) that presented her findings.

Funding allocated for children's toilet facilities had disappeared, resulting in high levels of open defecation (in the same spaces where they played and ate). This increased their risk of contracting cholera, giardiasis, hepatitis, and rotavirus, and accounted for low attendance, in particular among girls, who also had no facilities during their menstruation cycles. The end result: poor student performance on exams.

Through Choge's analysis and story, open data became actionable intelligence. As a result, government is acting: ministry resources are being allocated to correct the toilet deficiency across the most underserved primary schools and to identify the source of the misallocation at the root of the problem. Moreover, NTV, with help from the World Bank and African Media Initiative-supported Code for Kenya program, are building a mobile phone application to enable parents across Kenyan counties to access and compare sanitary conditions in their children's schools against schools in other counties, and to demand action and improvements from government.

This is just one illustration of how opened data — particularly hyperlocal data — can elevate issues, which matter to people into the public consciousness for consideration, debate, and action. As governments continue to open data the world over, there needs to be a stronger emphasis on enabling "mass mobilizers" and ultimately the public to use and reuse it. Doing so can unleash the true power of opened data — to become actionable intelligence.

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Photo Credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank

 

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