Published on Voices

Get smarter: A world of development data in your pocket!

Many dinner conversations and friendly debates proceed in a data vacuum: “The problem is big… very big!” How big exactly? Most likely your friend has no idea. 

It is often said that we live in a new data age. Institutions such as the Bank, UN agencies, NASA, ESA, universities and others have deluged us with an overwhelming amount of new data obtained painstakingly from countries and surveys or observed by the increasing number of eyes in the sky. We have modern tools such as mobile phones that are more powerful than old mainframes I used to use in my university days. You can be in rural Malawi and still have access to decent 3G data networks.
Open data for sustainable development

However, this new data age has unfortunately not really dawned for most of us, on any side of the digital divide. This is because much of the information that we seek to help us understand the world around us is locked up in various Ministry rooms where termites do the only digestion of these data, or are in formats we have never heard of, or hidden in a portal whose address you will never remember…or possibly stored behind passwords you created but have long forgotten. And we all know that data that cannot be accessed or visualized easily are as good as not having any data at all, which then leads to the culture we often see of data-free analysis or analysis-free decision making.  

The problem is big… very big indeed, as you cannot manage what you cannot measure—or access. However, there is growing interest in doing something with all the gadgets and big data out there, and making sure they work in concert for the common good. At the Social Good Summit held by the UN Foundation and Mashable earlier this week, there were plenty of appeals to channel data to advance causes such as gender equality, ending HIV/AIDS or restoring ocean health. I was privileged to be part of the program and presented a new application developed by the World Bank that can go some way toward organizing the current big data cosmos in hopefully helpful ways. The App, called Spatial Agent, aims to put a world of data at your fingertips.
Spatial Agent: A new look at development data

A fair warning: This is an App for curious and eclectic minds. Our target audience ranges from World Bankers to water ministers, schoolgirls and farmers. If you have ever wondered:

Which areas in the Middle East have experienced rain in the last 3 hours? How have humans changed the global landscape since 1700? Which areas are susceptible to earthquakes in Chile? Which areas in India have high child malnutrition? How does Vietnam's GDP per capita growth compare with that of Ethiopia in recent years?  How do the world’s countries compare in terms of the percentage of women in their parliaments? ...

Then this App is for you!

A small team that I lead at the World Bank has put together what we hope will be a new paradigm for development data—to highlight public-domain datasets from sources around the world. Spatial Agent can be downloaded for free for iOS (e.g. iPhone, iPad) or Android (phones or tables) platforms and pulls together thousands of types of data from over 300 web services from major institutions around the world. A web version is also under development (but you can already take a peek).

These are early days—we hope to add more iconic datasets, help our clients put data in more open data service formats, introduce more innovative visualization, interactivity, functionality and customization, and provide training and helpdesk support so that this becomes an indispensable tool for us all—conversations, fact checking, tweets and facebook postings will never be the same again! 

So download Spatial Agent now and take it for a spin. Please do send us your feedback, suggestions for improvement and tell us how the data has helped you in your work and daily life. Let’s make the wealth of data work for us in going from big problems to big solutions to make the world a better place! 


Nagaraja Rao Harshadeep

Global Lead (Disruptive Technology), Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice

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