Open all hours: the power and potential of open data

Midtown Manhattan could hardly feel further away – both literally and figuratively – from the front line of global development. But later this year, government leaders and representatives of civil society groups and NGOs will gather there, drawn by the need to finalise the next set of global development priorities at the nearby headquarters of the UN.

These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will seek to address major global issues of justice, human rights, social inclusion, prosperity and the environment over the next 15 years. It’s quite a list. Policymakers, though, possess a huge advantage over their predecessors: their access to the recent proliferation and potential of open data to measure progress and discover solutions.

Data dynamics

Open data is data made available by organisations, businesses and individuals for everyone to access, use and share. This availability ensures that the data can be used by anyone to improve service delivery, build new businesses or – from a development perspective – improve livelihoods and hold aid recipients to account for resource allocation.

It’s already becoming clear that open data holds particular resonance for international development. By 2013, out of the 41 national platforms available for accessing open data, 12 had been created by developing countries. And with the African Development Bank becoming the first pan-African entity to provide regional information through a central platform, it is increasingly likely that open data will form a central part of the plans for the SDG framework.

The timing is certainly significant. Driven by a push for greater aid effectiveness and accountability from development programmes, there has been an increasing need to measure results using reliable, transparent data as evidence. But its potential is not just limited to tracking aid effectiveness.

Open data can also be used to inform evidence-based policymaking and the design of government services by providing a source of information to identify wasteful spending, target resources more effectively, and design more responsive services. By opening up datasets, typically on a central portal, government departments can share information easily and prevent silos from emerging. Evidence suggests that where governments have introduced open data portals, a large proportion of the views or downloads are from civil servants in other departments.

Citizen outcomes: tales from the front line

Examples abound for how open data is already accelerating progress in some of the world’s most impoverished countries. Kenya may be a country on the up in many ways, but challenges – both practical and political – continue to proliferate. Take education. In a country where 50% of the population is under the age of 18, it important for policymakers to have access to accurate information about issues such as literacy rates and academic performance across regions. With open data visualisations such as the Kibera schools map  it is now possible to see where schools are located in Kenya, and the percentage of children not in education. This data reveals areas of the population which may be under-served and can therefore be targeted with better services.

Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, is also using open data to engage its citizens in policymaking by addressing budget transparency, teacher absenteeism and urban upgrading through a citizen engagement platform. An open data portal (data.edostate.gov.ng) was launched in September 2013. For the first time the state budget, including historical data, was published and made available online for citizens to access. The portal is now being reused by the tech community, the media, and civil society, providing citizens with access to about 90 government datasets, including census, fiscal and geospatial data.

Policymakers in Nepal are currently focusing on building transparent and accountable public institutions. With foreign aid representing 22% of the national budget in 2013-14, and financing most development spending, NGOs, journalists and civil society have demanded more comprehensive, timely and detailed information on where the money is going. In response, the country’s Ministry of Finance has launched its Aid Management Platform to strengthen efforts to monitor aid and budget spending. All NGOs are now required to report details about their funding and programmes to the platform, building on similar civil society-driven initiatives.

Next steps

There is little doubt that, while much progress has been made, systemic problems persist in addressing the next decade’s development challenges. Open data’s ability to more effectively target aid money and improve development programmes, track development progress and prevent corruption, and contribute to innovation, job creation and economic growth, should give it a pivotal role in the design and implementation of the forthcoming SDGs.

But there are no guarantees. Governments, NGOs, industry and communities must come together to grasp this opportunity. The momentum being generated from the SDGs should help drive progress in addressing the digital divide, improve the quality of open data, and bring forth a cultural shift towards data becoming open by default. This requires not only investment in national statistical systems and ICT, but also support for entrepreneurial open data leaders and start-ups to demonstrate the true potential of open data for development. With a coordinated effort, a world of reduced poverty and strengthened development will surely follow.

 

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