Published on Let's Talk Development

Improving public health with open data

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Major funders of public health research – the World Bank included – have today issued a joint statement to champion the wider sharing of data to achieve better public health worldwide.

Mother and boy being attended to by Health Education nurse. Sri Lanka. Photo © Dominic Sansoni / World Bank

This is a great step forward: advances in public health throughout the decades, perhaps like no other discipline, have been underpinned by careful research based on data. An early and celebrated example is the epidemiologist John Snow’s study of the relationship between the water supply and cholera outbreaks in central London in 1854, which used public data to establish the link between contaminated water and the disease. More recently, the mapping of the human genome was completed by a global collaborative effort based on the sharing of effort and data.

In many fields and in many countries, sharing of data is fast becoming normal practice ( An environment where data are open, freely available and easily accessible to all can provide tremendous benefits for development. At the World Bank we opened our databases last April. And there are great examples of agencies starting to routinely provide access to their datasets, which were previously closely guarded, such as data collected through household surveys.

In many developing countries this  data is immensely valuable but there’s too little of it:  through data sharing, researchers can re-use the data to create new insights and find new solutions to development problems. The International Household Survey Network reports that Tanzania has recently joined this movement and now has a data archive with several household surveys and their latest population census available to the public.  Congratulations to the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics for this effort!

But many public health researchers and data collectors still practice what Hans Rosling, professor of health-turned-data-story-teller refers to as DbHd: Database Hugging disorder. According to a Lancet article published today, the culture of open data has yet to be widely embraced by the public health research community.

So it is exciting news for public health researchers and development generally that 17 funders of public health research have signed the statement so far, pledging to enable sharing of data collected through the research initiatives they fund in an equitable, ethical, and efficient manner. This should lead to increased availability of research data for secondary data users. And the result will be faster  improvements in public health  worldwide.


Tamar Manuelyan Atinc

Senior Non-resident Fellow, Brookings Institution

Shaida Badiee

Co-Founder and Managing Director, Open Data Watch

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