Given enough eyeballs, development is a shallow problem

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Not to be outdone by their UK counterparts, George Mason University has recently published a paper on "Crowdsourcing Government Transparency." The author notes that the US government data is often not online, and, when it is, it is seldom easy to access or use. The solution? "Hack, mash & peer."

By providing information through the web in the form of structured data, government agencies can increase transparency and open up opportunities for citizens to interact with data in innovative and useful ways. Mash-ups such as, a website that "illuminates the connection between money and politics," are a point in case.

Even more telling is the example of a blog that recruits hundreds of volunteers to sift through 3,000 pages of a "document dump" from the Department of Justice overnight, to hit the headlines with their key findings by 7:30am the following day.

Instances like these lead the report's author to argue, paraphrasing Eric Raymond's Linus Law, that "given enough eyeballs, corruption and waste (in government) are shallow problems."

It is easy to draw a parallel here with the development sector. As Hans Rosling powerfully reminds us, development data are buried in hundreds of password-protected, hard to access databases. But when freed, the data often reveal unexpected patterns and can help inform policymaking. A recent panel on the impact of social data visualization has reinforced the message.

Given the limited resources and the interdisciplinary nature of the development sector, using new technologies to interpret and analyze its problems seems like a reasonable way forward. But for that to happen, development organizations need to make their data publicly available so that "enough eyeballs" can access and re-use it. A "mash-up laboratory" of the UN and World Bank data could be a good place to start. Any takers out there?

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