Open data and the 'average' citizen (building the YouTube of data)


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Is open data useful only to developers and researchers? Can 'average' users use open data to answer questions they have?

One of the (undeserved!) knocks against open data is the presumption that its core audience is technical and that the only people who can truly take advantage of open data are developers who can tap into APIs to build applications that then make sense of open data for lay audiences (unless the audience happens to be researchers in which case they probably have the necessary tools and the forbearance to troll through vast amounts of raw material). Viewed through this prism, open data is only effective via infomediaries.

That doesn't necessarily have to be true and one of the objectives of World Bank Finances (the newest part of the Bank's broader open data initiative)which went live on July 13 (read the announcement on the World Bank's open data site), is to make open data appealing and relevant for the 'average' citizen, while still providing the right incentives and tools to developers that want to build applications using the data on the site.

Part of the secret of course is to publish data with the requisite oomph (which we hope the datasets on the site have! -- they cover information about the Bank’s investments, assets it manages on behalf of global funds, and the Bank’s own financial statements), but it is also crucial to provide interactive tools that invite people to use them, that are simple, and that explicitly encourage and demonstrate social behavior. When somebody comes to the site with a question, the site must intuitively guide the person to an answer, or to a community that may have the answer, rather than just throw data at them - that kind of blunt, brute force 'transparency' can be traumatic.

World Bank Finances tries to solve the dilemma by providing nontechnical users with tools that help them slice and dice the data on the site itself, visualize it, and then either save it on the site so other people can access them or share it through social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter. This sounds great (and this video demonstrates the inherent appeal of the idea) but does it work, and is it enough to just create and provide social tools? It's too early to say but the signs are promising. People have begun to create and save/share work on the site (here is an example; here is another one; and yet another one) -- we have also noticed evidence of people posting notes on Facebook or Twitter that reference charts or filtered data on the site. So far so good (and a nascent community may be building) but there isn't enough evidence yet to declare victory.

There are a few obvious things to work on. There are plenty of powerful tools on the site but the social features, appealing as they are, aren't prominent enough and the site doesn't quite 'feel' social. Take one example -- it takes at least a couple of clicks to identify who created an artifact; it's an equivalent chore to determine the community rating of a dataset. The community and the people explicitly take a back-seat to the data. You could thus argue that while the site doesn't skimp on social features, its social appeal isn't readily apparent. So, nice idea, nice start, but...

We will continue to work on the user experience design (ideas welcome here) but what will be decisive in the long-run is whether we are able to create conversations/communities about our data -- and they needn't be on our site. How will people talk about and perceive the data? What motivation can we create for them to visit the site and when they do come, will the site invite them to create and share rather than merely consume? Will the communication appeal to nontechnical audiences? What will we do to help people understand that the site contains answers to their questions and that they themselves can easily find/create them (or at least find people who may have the answers)? How will we target civil society organizations that may not have the capacity or technical skills to build apps to analyze the data? Will people describe the site in terms of the results they can achieve rather than the plethora of tools available to them?

Will the open data angle eventually become redundant -- because the site finally becomes a repository of shared insights and answers (which just happen to be powered by open data)?

It's a tricky challenge and one that we want to learn more about. What have you done with open data to make it social and interactive?

Open data of the people, by the people , and for the people! A chart created by a site user.


Prasanna Lal Das

Lead Knowledge Management Officer, Trade & Competitiveness

Simon Kokoyo
August 10, 2011

Your article is very encouraging especially for advocates of open data like. Thanks Prasanna Lal Das.
The open data should not become another buzz words ike 'empowerment, participation, involvement'. These word have been used previous as promise that change will be instant. With open data, like the one about Kenya should deviate from the normal way of government presenting very important message in boring ways. When I looked at you suggestion on 'this video demonstrates the inherent appeal of the idea'. I mean even if I was an average citizen or a intellectual I would be more likely to visit the site again because of the animation neat presentation. Just imagine if the Kenya government would animate this information how it would look.
When you look at the data USA government has on CIA Factsbook on Kenya, it is far much better than the one we have on open data.

What again the CIA website lacks is the animation I have seen in your suggestion. Government should realize people wants data presented differently and excitingly.

August 10, 2011

It's exciting to see the World Bank's Open Data initiative growing in breadth, depth and value.

The finances site marks the first time the Bank's own operations are getting the full open data treatment: it's a fine complement to the global development datasets and microdata released over the last year, and definitely a taste of what more is to come.

With our commitment to The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards, our work on institutionalizing the geo-coding and mapping of our projects, and an established organisational access to information policy: the pieces are coming into place and the future of operational open data at the Bank is looking for us, and good for users of our data.

I like the idea that the open data angle "might eventually become redundant" - I agree that getting past the data, and to the insights is where the action is, and that celebrating achievements like is the right thing to do now.

But I also think we should get to a place where opening up some data shouldn't be an event - the whole endeavour should be a quiet, automatic, always available service that's part of the institution's core business: open data should be in our DNA. This will happen naturally over time, but articles like this are important; they move the conversation on from open data to open development, towards the socialization of data and to the broader use of this data for informing action.

Lastly, I'd suggest there's considerable variation among 'average citizens'. Users don't need deep technical analysis or visualization skills to use this platform, but they do require a good level of data and computer literacy, and they get most out of the site when trying to answer specific questions (as the community examples suggest). These users also need access to an internet connected computer (or mobile app). To those lacking access to these skills and infrastructure, infomediaries are still essential.

To date, I think the efforts of data journalists and citizen infomediaries are responsible for the most broadly shared insights into public open data. I think having these new social layers close to the data will help to make it more directly valuable to users, but also inspire infomediaries to answer new questions, in new ways, and bring even more to the mission to reduce global poverty. - Access to Information policy - Microdata Catalogue - Mapping for Results / Geo-coding initiative - Data Catalog - Information about IATI

August 10, 2011

Thanks for the comments Simon and Tariq.

Simon, I do share your concern that some open data initiatives may be 'boring' but these are still early days for open data - let's hope that the work will soon become more broadly accessible and appealing.

And Tariq, agree with most of what you write. Infomediaries have been and will continue to be vital but, like you say, perhaps their role will soon evolve and they will begin to focus on more sophisticated challenges when the 'average' citizen is able to answer relatively rudimentary questions herself.

And here's to the open data DNA! May the days of open data 'non-events' arrive soon.

Henry Grageda
August 15, 2011

What does it take to integrate subnational datasets in Open Data? What would be appropriate policies or guidelines for ensuring data comparability? What can we learn from the Kenya Open Portal?

In a context where local development is occurring at various speeds and there is relatively strong local autonomy in certain areas, it is useful for local policy development institutions to be able to benchmark their desired development outcomes with model countries' and perhaps begin examining the policies these countries shaped to achieve these outcomes.

In a recent demonstration of Open Data and tools at an island-province cluster in the Philippines, the effectiveness of Data Visualizer to raise interest and use of data was reinforced when participants from national agency field offices, local government agencies, civil society organizations and the academe tested simple relationships relevant to local development issues that, among others included:
- CO2 emmission per capita (e.g. from industrialization) that allowed a certain income level to be achieved.
- the share of Agri/Industry/Services in the GDP against income growth
- the population growth rate's relationship with the share of income of the lowest and highest quintiles of the population

They opined how much better the experience and learnings could be if their own local data (adjusted for comparability) could be charted against the international data. And somehow, one couldn't help but agree.

August 17, 2011

I can't but agree with you Henry. It is a truism that data must be local to arouse general interest and that subnational data must be a critical component of open data initiatives. We're trying - some thoughts are at

Nice also to hear about another concrete example of data visualization as a tool to test/demonstrate data relationships and context.

August 22, 2011

Thanks for this article. At Junar, we believe in the vision of making data more accesible to the public. We want to make data easy to collect, publish, share, and use. Please check out our site and let us know what you think and how we can make it fit better with the open data initiatives out there...