As of July 1, 2012, all data published by the World Bank regarding its development programs will be made available to all online. The Bank will also be the first major international organization to embrace Creative Commons licensing for its research products, making them free to reuse. This move has been hailed as a significant step forward for the open data movement and for development. At the same time, how useful will a slew of data be to development organizations on the ground, struggling to interpret their meaning? Opening up data will also need to be accompanied by incremental changes toward more transparent processes and greater communication.
Just as explorers, advancing into previously uncharted territory, will plant their flag on the new terrain, the World Bank is staking its claim as a leader in the realm of transparent, accessible data. From July 1, 2012, all published data from Bank-funded projects for international development and poverty reduction will officially be made available to the public via the centralized and searchable Open Knowledge Repository (OKR). With Creative Commons licensing that lets anyone reuse and redistribute the data as long as they credit the Bank, says the organization, “millions more will be able to contribute to development progress. Now, anyone in the world can easily access and build upon World Bank knowledge — not just academics or those working at the bank.” In theory, this should be true; in practice, how useable will this trove of knowledge be for development workers on the ground?
The World Bank is being called a pioneer in the open data movement and, most anyone will agree, this is an important step in the right direction. Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, applauded the Bank’s choice of adopting Creative Commons licenses, saying he was “delighted to see a major institution like the World Bank push the boundaries and not just make their work free of charge, but also free for use and reuse.”
Tobias Denskus (@aidnography), an international development and social media researcher and blogger, fully agrees, but adds that simply making the data available represents a narrow understanding of the word “pioneer”. “Open data means Excel spreadsheets and statistics. It’s quantitative. We need the numbers, but we also need qualitative approaches to interpret the data.”
On the other hand, Tariq Khokhar (@tkb), currently Open Data Evangelist for the World Bank, has previously argued that open data, quantitative though it may be, can influence forces as subjective even as political agendas. Responding to Denskus’ call for more critical discussion around open aid, Khokhar explained that the transparency of open data is “self-disciplining”. That is, knowing that the data will be made public encourages better use of aid funds. “There is a strange tendency among people working in development, faced with political decisions which make aid less effective, to assume that these political forces are beyond our control and influence. Yes: development decisions can be political; access to aid data is one thing which may change the politics.” He cites a study by Jörg Faust of the German Development Institute supporting this claim: the results showed that “more than half the variation between donors in how well they allocate aid can be explained by how transparent they are.”
Denskus remains concerned that most of the information coming out of World Bank reports is so specialized that, while great for researchers and PhDs, it will remain out of reach of most other development players. “We’ll probably see journalists at the Guardian or the New York Times teaming up with researchers who know the data and, after six months, they may find that, of 365 projects in Uganda, say, there’s something wrong with 59 of them. But it’s naïve, maybe, to say that local organizations could analyze all of this data themselves, feed it into the local media, and use it to put pressure on the local government.”
Aid Transparency: Necessary, but not sufficient
In various blog posts on the subject of open aid, Denskus hastens to add that he supports the World Bank’s move toward open data. But he warns against contenting ourselves with this initial step. “This is a first stage. There is data available, that’s great, and others will follow, but communication will be important.”
Tariq Khokhar also feels that “aid transparency is necessary but not sufficient for making aid more effective.” But he believes that access to data can improve the system by making it more responsive and creating “a better feedback loop between beneficiaries and donors… It will enable ongoing, incremental improvements to aid as a whole.”
Creating a process that is more open along the way toward creating the data would have the benefit of revealing problems before it’s too late to fix them. Admitting difficulties once in a while would not be an admission of failure, but an opportunity to solve them. Tobias Denskus suggests that a donor organization willing to upgrade the status of blogging could result in a public record of a project as it is happening. This would be a useful, real-time form of transparent communication to accompany the traditional 30-page report published at the conclusion of the program.
All the same, Denskus acknowledges that some development projects are not well adapted to high levels of transparency. When the World Bank makes a $100 million-infrastructure loan to an African country, for instance, “these projects have a lot of fault lines,” a lot of places where something can go wrong. Tracking the details of all of them is “not a level of transparency that any EU country has! It would be demanding something of developing countries that we couldn’t do ourselves. You have to be careful not to put demands on already overstretched countries.”
The key to success with open data and development, then, is modest expectations for the short term. “There’s no panacea for anything, and it will take longer for [the effects of open data at the World Bank] to trickle down than people think.” Even with the use of social media improving, more and more, the transparency and sharing of data, the process will take time. “The World Bank has good tech people in Africa, but it’s just not true that everyone in Africa has a mobile.” That is one reason why Denskus feels incremental change is more realistic than hitting a “tipping point where social media will suddenly influence the UN Security Council. But it could help attract people to work for an organization; beneficiaries may have more positive reactions to the agency and want to work with them. It’s a virtuous circle.”
As Tariq Khokhar has said, open data is just a tool. The next stage needs to be about finding ways to apply the information in a practical way and “supporting the institutions and individuals who want to use it.” Tobias Denskus suggests that, one day, an independent monitoring foundation could work with local anthropologists, statisticians, and social media experts to put the data in context and make it come alive. He could imagine the Google Foundation getting involved in the open data movement by funding such a platform, “or, maybe, when Bill Gates is done with malaria…” It’s not a bad idea: the potential to improve lives through the efficient use of huge amounts of accessible knowledge would be great, indeed.
To find out more:
World Bank Open Access Policy for Formal Publications https://documents.worldbank.org/en/publication/documents-reports/documentdetail/992881468337274796/world-bank-open-access-policy-for-formal-publications
Admitting Failure: “The development community is failing…to learn from failure.” https://www.admittingfailure.org/
“Do Less Transparent Donor Countries Allocate Aid Differently?” by Jörg Faust https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1644704
Development 3.0: is social accountability the answer? http://www.owen.org/blog/4250
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