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Article Article September 10th, 2015

How open data can empower development

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The potential of open government data in Africa and Asia remains largely untapped

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Lasting progress on ending poverty will only come when poor people have a say in development

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We need long-term, embedded approaches to building skills and trust around data

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On 25 April 2015 a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Kathmandu, killing thousands instantly. As more than 120 aftershocks rumbled through Nepal, a complex international humanitarian effort swung into place. This time, though, the rescuers had a new tool: open data. Vital information - such as maps, casualty updates, hospital locations and water sources - could now be accessed instantly in one place, in easily shareable formats, through the Humanitarian Data Exchange. As a result, relief got to the right places faster - saving many lives.

Open data is “data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone”. Governments hold a huge amount of data - everything from land titles to crop prices to disease patterns - yet much of it is languishing in filing cabinets or locked up in PDFs that have to be manually analysed. If this data is released in machine-readable formats, agencies can coordinate basic services more efficiently (as in the Nepal example); entrepreneurs can develop new ways to solve problems (such as the traffic and navigation app Waze); and citizens can keep a closer eye on government performance.

At the World Wide Web Foundation (established by web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee), we're working with community groups and local governments to test the uses of open data in Africa and Asia. Our approach is a unique combination of robust research, capacity-building and bottom-up innovation.

Empower for impact

We are beginning to see open data's potential in Africa and Asia. It has saved health ministries in southern Africa millions on drug procurement, improved teacher attendance in Lahore, Pakistan, and exposed ‘ghost toilets' (public sanitation facilities that existed only on paper) in Chennai, India. But these remain isolated examples. Our research on the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC), funded by the International Development Research Centre and involving 100 local researchers in 13 countries, shows that the potential of government data remains largely untapped.

A key barrier identified in the first phase of this research was a mismatch between supply and demand - with governments publishing the datasets that are easiest to release, not the ones that citizens actually want or need. When reflecting on why this mismatch keeps happening, I always remember the concept of ‘wicked problems', problems that are complex and therefore require complex solutions. Governments are aware that knowledge is power; opening up data lays bare this power and shares it with citizens - so it is inevitable that publication will not be a straightforward process.

That's why we established an Open Data Lab in Jakarta this year, supported by the Ford Foundation. Instead of just holding ‘hackathons' or building portals, the Lab works with both government and civil society over a sustained period to create dialogue and trust based on data. In Banda Aceh, Indonesia, a city deeply scarred by a legacy of insurgency and brutal repression, we found that open data could provide a neutral meeting ground for parents and education authorities - allowing them to establish consensus on the issues facing local schools. In the Philippines, according to a 2014 survey, fewer than 2 in 10 people believed that the government was not corrupt. Open data is equipping Filipinos with the tools to verify that their local government is spending its budget properly. This helps to build trust and establish the positive feedback loop needed for the recent decentralisation reforms to succeed. In both cases, we see the immediate win as one step in a gradual process that the Lab is helping to catalyse: a process of changing how the state and its citizens relate to each other.

Ultimately, our aim is to demonstrate to Asia's leaders that a more participatory and transparent approach to governance - facilitated by open data - is not only possible but desirable. In addition, the Lab's experimentation is generating ‘how-to-do-it' insights which may be more relevant to Asian countries than the well-known open data experiences of the UK and the US. We hope to start a similar lab for Africa soon.

Getting laws and policies right

For data innovations to go to scale, enabling laws and policies are essential.

There are many barriers. Just 17% of the 86 countries surveyed in our annual Open Data Barometer have well-functioning laws on the right to information. Less than 8% openly release data on government spending, public sector contracts and company ownership. Most developing countries included in our Emerging Impacts study had weak or non-existent personal privacy legislation.

We're pushing hard to close these institutional gaps. Earlier this year, with the backing of the African Union, we helped to secure an African Data Consensus, which declares that: “Official data belong to the people and should be open to all”. At next month's UN summit on the new sustainable development goals, we'll be part of the launch of an International Open Data Charter to ensure that meaningful transparency climbs higher on the political agenda everywhere.

The revolution will not be available as an app

Development is perhaps the ultimate wicked problem. Lasting progress on ending poverty will only come when poor and marginalised people themselves have a real say in development choices, and can hold their governments to account in implementing those choices. No amount of hackathons or clever apps will make this happen, however, because what is involved is nothing less than changing the nature of the relationship between citizens and the state. In order to enable greater openness, we need long-term, embedded approaches to building skills and trust around data disclosure (such as the models our Lab is testing in Indonesia), combined with concerted advocacy for change in laws, policies and institutions.

When open data empowers ordinary people to participate in development as agents of change, not just as its objects or beneficiaries, then its real impact will be unleashed.

Note: The ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries' (ODDC) research is funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (through grant 107075). The Web Foundation is a partner of the Open Data for Development network.


  • Open all hours. Liz Carolan explains how open data can help accelerate development progress around the world
  • Moving beyond open data. Adrian Brown says governments should take a strategic approach to open data
  • Data deliverers. International policymakers set out their priorities as they promote open data in their governments
  • Extended opening hours. Open data is increasingly being used to revolutionise public services. Here, we take a look at examples from Nigeria, Ecuador and New Zealand

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