Why Open Data for Development is Hard

Global Integrity
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The always thoughtful Al Kags posted a wonderful summary of a presentation he recently made exploring the potential and pitfalls of leveraging open data towards transparent and efficient elections. You should read the full post here, but the thrust of Al’s argument – which goes well beyond elections per se – is as follows:

When I first got involved in the Open Data, the vision was that it would be available for every citizen, so that it would empower them to improve their lives. For me, that vision has not changed. However, I have refined in my mind what it would take to get that citizen to even have a desire for the data.

Data can only gain traction with the citizenry if it is useful from day to day. In the west, most successful data projects have been those that the citizens use for every day activities – transit, the health certification of restaurants, etc.

Data for development is a tougher proposition especially in Africa. Transit or health restaurant data may not be as useful in Africa – especially when you consider some of our favorite places to eat and the informal (read: chaotic) nature of our public transport systems. It has dependencies that we must consider: literacy levels, exposure levels and interest. When thinking about education data we have to spend time considering what people want: often it has nothing really to do with teacher-student ratios. Rather it is likely to have more to do with space availability and past performance.

When thinking about taxes, citizens have more of an interest in how much they have to pay and what relief areas they have access to – including loopholes they can use to avoid paying taxes altogether. When they know what taxes they must pay, then they want to know what it does – “how much do I pay for the Kenya police service? How much of my taxes went into planning the election?” Again, this is NOT the majority of the citizens. The majority are busy trying to move their lives forward.

There’s some really important stuff in here worth unpacking further.

First, raw datasets on a website are unlikely to gain significant traction with any swath of the public beyond the true nerds and hardcore infomediaries. Such sites are simply not “useful from day to day,” as Al puts it. Whether this is good or bad depends on your strategy. Data portals designed explicitly for infomediaries strike me as a smart idea. Data portals designed to appeal to and be used by “the public,” however defined, are almost certain to fall short of expectations, leading to increased cynicism around open data (a negative outcome).

Second, open data for development is even harder than open data for transit because we don’t really know what makes development work to begin with. This is not an open data problem but one that renders open data in the development context a somewhat flailing exercise.

In transit, we know that the frequency, safety, cleanliness, reliability, and timeliness of buses are pretty important things for making a municipal bus system work. We can then gather data around those variables and mash them up in apps to make them helpful to the average bus rider. Open data for the win!

“Development” (however defined, itself a controversial argument) is roughly a thousand times more complex. What matters most to a country’s development: stable politics, economic policy choices, exchange rate management, the delivery of key government services, targeted poverty alleviation interventions, or the operating environment for businesses? It’s nearly impossible to say for any country, let alone “the developing world,” apart from broad platitudes (“protectionism bad,” “transparency helps,” “middle class good”) for which there is little open data could do to help.

Third, as Al goes on to say later in his post, “As net consumers of knowledge and information, citizens often only find relevance in data when that data is enveloped around interesting stories that relate to their lives.” In the development context, this means changing the narrative from “you should consume these data because development is really important to your country” to “here’s some information that might help you find the cheapest clinic for getting your kids vaccinated next week.” But finding user-friendly narratives becomes more difficult when we move beyond health and education and into public financial management, institutional reform, regulatory frameworks, and other more arcane (but equally important) aspects of development.

Make sure you keep an eye on Al’s blogging and Tweeting moving forward.

Nathaniel Heller

Image Credit: Flickr | opensourceway

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

One comment on “Why Open Data for Development is Hard”

  • Marija Novkovic says:

    Dear Nathaniel,

    Many thanks for bringing Al Kags’ thinking to the fore and adding your two cents. The points you both raise are very important. Open data is certainly not a quick fix to development work; it is merely one of the approaches that might be effective provided that many other factors fall into place.

    Right off the top of my head, there should already be a propensity of the citizens to engage with the governments and a decent level of openness and transparency from the authorities. Internet literacy and use of ICTs will also influence the appetite for open data and other instances where technology is meant to facilitate citizen engagement. Visionaries and the entrepreneurial-minded might see an upside to open data, i.e. opportunities for new products and new jobs. And you can always count on your random civic hacker to come up with an application built on data.

    For your ordinary citizen, the decisive moment will be context – a story around data that touches on real life issues and concerns; this is where I am fully on board with you and Al, as this is the crux of the matter. We are embarking on an exciting new project in Montenegro, we are about to visualize national budget, hoping it will spark the interest of the citizens and be a step towards participatory budgeting. We’ll dig dip into data, trying to make sense of it and tell (hopefully!) compelling stories. It will be challenging! We’ll share more on this project soon.


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