Open data as anti-poverty tool must get smarter

Tuesday, 16 June 2015 05:41 GMT

An illustration picture shows a projection of binary code on a man holding a laptop computer, in an office in Warsaw June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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Ironically, there's no data to prove that open data is making governments more efficient and responsive

The buzz in the development community a few years ago was all about governments opening up their treasure troves of data to the public. It would empower citizens to hold decision-makers to account, reduce corruption and improve service delivery.

Ask experts in governance and transparency today what impact open data is having on improving people’s lives, and they rely on anecdotes.

There's Check My School in the Philippines, which allows parents to look at budget documents and to report online whether the educational services the government promised are actually delivered. Or in Uruguay, At Your Service allows citizens to check customer ratings for doctors and what fees they charge.

But solid evidence of the revolutionary promise that open data is making governments more efficient and responsive is surprisingly hard to find.

Ironically, there is just no data yet to prove it.

One problem, said Stefaan Verhulst who is co-founder of the Governance Lab at New York University, is that while there has been a whole lot of time and money spent on the technology to digitise, standardise and publish data, less time has been spent on identifying what problems open data can solve.

The result is that open data is not used in a smart way and supply has outstripped demand. Without clear objectives, it is difficult to measure results, he said at a World Bank conference last week to chart the impact of open data.

“You first need to identify the value you want to create,” Verhulst said.

One way to do that is to gather stakeholders together to discuss what gems might be buried in government data and then share innovative ideas on how to mine it, said Joel Gurin, president of Open Data Enterprise and former head of a White House group on smart disclosure. In fact, Gurin thinks only 20 percent of government data may be really valuable.

For example, he led a brainstorming session among transportation experts from industry and government, who realised they could use highway crash data and hospital admissions figures to analyse what vehicle safety requirements are most effective for saving lives.

"You need to bring the focus and analysis to where the greatest value is likely to be," Gurin said.

Sometimes the value of open data is found in unexpected places.

In Sierra Leone, a country with a 70 percent illiteracy rate, publishing government data would seem a low priority. But Khadija Sesay, director of the country's Open Government Initiative, said the opposite is true.

She travels around the country meeting with villagers and chiefs, holding radio call-in shows and sending mobile phone text messages to explain how the government is spending their money, solicit ideas about what services citizens want and show them how they can use data to check on what government delivers.

In doing so, she is fostering a national conversation around the role of government in people's lives. It builds trust and quells the types of rumour and misinformation that spiralled into the 1991-2002 civil war and fuelled the Ebola crisis, she said. Data is becoming a peacebuilding tool, Sesay said.

Common to both Sesay and Gurin's approach is the role of communicator, or what experts are calling an "infomediary" - someone who analyses data and communicates with citizens and government officials, who then feed the results back into their work - be it advocacy or decision-making.

Without smarter ways of using the data, its impact will continue to fall short of its potential.

Never has it mattered more. The international community is on the cusp of adopting 17 new development goals to end extreme poverty by 2030. Billions of dollars in development funds will be spent over the next 15 years to achieve them.

Data will be essential to measure progress on these goals.  But used in a smart way, it can do far more. It can help identify solutions for better anti-poverty outcomes.

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