Published on Let's Talk Development

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

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