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Need to Know: Why Open Data is for Everyone

Roxanne Bauer's picture

The International Finance Corporation hosted a ‘Hard Talk’ on Tuesday, February 25, 2014 entitled ‘Presumption of Openness: Can Open Data Contribute to Economic Growth and Prosperity?’ Rufus Pollock, Director and Co-founder of Open Knowledge Foundation, and Gavin Starks, CEO of Open Data Institute, provided insight as guest speakers about what constitutes open data, how it contributes to economic growth, and the ways in which it can contribute to The World Bank Group’s twin goals of poverty eradication and shared prosperity.

Open Data

Essentially, open data is both a concept and a category of data.  It is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and repurpose without restrictions from copyright, patents, or other controls.  It is defined by three characteristics: (1) ease of access to data, (2) ability to reuse and share data, and (3) universal participation- anyone can use the data.  As a category of data, open data refers to data— big and small— that are comprised of anonymous and non-personal information and to content, such as images, text and music.

In terms of poverty reduction, both Pollock and Starks believe that the potential benefits of open data are numerous and powerful. As urbanization, globalization, and fragmentation all continue to shape societies, they argue that data can help governments, the private sector, and communities to be more efficient, resourceful, and effective.

Benefits for Governments

Firstly, as populations become increasingly urbanized, infrastructure within urban environments will need to improve.  However, it’s not feasible or necessary to build more hospitals or water pipes to accommodate growing populations.  Instead, it will be crucial to use existing infrastructure more efficiently— and big data can help us to do so.  Real-time traffic and public transportation information can be used by cities to plan new train lines, traffic lights and ambulance routes.  Water and power data can help identify which services consumers are most willing to pay for, control peak demand periods, and channel resources towards new city sectors.

Providing a personal example, Starks told the audience about a collaboration between Mastodon C, a start-up housed at the Open Data Institute, and Open Health Care UK, another start-up established by a doctor and a programmer. The two organizations tracked the number of generic and brand-name statin prescriptions administered by every family doctor in England and then mapped the results.  They found that there were considerable geographic variations in prescriptions that were not wholly explainable by clinical motives and estimated that had doctors adhered to generic drug guidelines, the National Health Service in England could have saved more than £200 million. 

Benefits for ‘The Public’

Citizens can also benefit in real ways by accessing and helping create data. The same data used by cities to plan infrastructure can be accessed on smartphone apps to inform users when the next bus is coming or how to avoid an accident.  Consumers can also save money and make better-informed purchases by comparing prices, quality ratings, safety data, and the environmental and labor practices of producers online.
These kinds of revelations are not possible without access to open data.   Opportunities are everywhere.
Changing Norms
Starks also noted that behavior change is the hardest component of the open data movement.  Data can help us reveal potential interventions, but translating knowledge into action requires shifts in behavior and perception.  He stated that it took the UK government a while to respond to the statin prescription study because many consultations were needed within government ministries.

Pollock agreed with Starks and further noted that the first instinct of governments and private firms is to ‘protect’ their data and maintain its secrecy.  Organizations understand the value of their data and want to retain that value as proprietary. 

He pointed out that this is ironic because open data has the ability to contribute to economic growth and investment as individuals and firms work with the data, producing new products and services and improving the efficiency of existing markets. The number and scale of profitable ideas and businesses that might emerge from open data are hard to overestimate.  A shift towards making data open by default, he says, is necessary to unlocking its economic potential.  

Starks concurred, saying that for the developing world, grounding infrastructure projects in openness will allow those sectors to leap-frog from inefficient, expensive, or polluting systems to more efficient and modern ones by exposing waste or negative externalities through the data.

Questions Remain

There remain, according to Pollock and Stark, two major questions regarding open data: a technocratic question about how to make and retain the anonymity of data and a social question about how to develop norms around data that instill the values of privacy and equal access.

Pollock asserted that the G8 countries were in a particularly important position with regard to open data because if they shift towards open data, then other countries will be encouraged to follow

Photographs courtesy of the World Bank's Flickr Collection, available here and here.

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Submitted by Wizwayo Juba on

Accessing information in Africa is more expensive than food, due to poor infrastructure development and investment that's why most Africans live below the poverty lines.

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