Opinion: How to make open data live up to its potential

August 11, 2017

Stefaan G. Verhuist, Andrew Young, Devex, 11 August 2017

In 2014, the United Nations launched its Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution. In the years since, there has been much optimism — and at times hype — surrounding the potential of data to bolster development outcomes around the world. While the data revolution encompasses many types of data — big data, science data, corporate data — one of the most important types of data seen as a pathway to positive impacts comes directly from governments, in the form of open data.

Many organizations and governments have highlighted the potential of open data to improve the functioning of governments in developing economies, enable new business creation by tech-literate communities, and make public how public funding, including international aid funding, is spent. Yet for all the enthusiasm, we still have very little evidence if and how open data really works in a development context.

one-year research project to map and assess the current universe of theory and practice related to open data for developing economies suggested the enthusiasm is justified, but positive impacts resulting from open data are far from guaranteed.

The openness of data is a key component in the impacts it creates. It can help to increase participation by allowing a wider range of expertise and knowledge to address and potentially solve complex problems. Moreover, open data’s flexibility, the result of its machine-readable nature, allows it to be repurposed and combined with other pieces of information. In developing economies, the ability to engage a wider, more diverse range of expertise, armed with the most complete and useful data possible, can lead to exciting new solutions.

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Open data’s transparency can increase the scrutiny and exposure of previously inaccessible institutional data leading to enhanced review and quality improvements, and, as a result, lead to higher levels of trust in government. This feature of open data is especially important in developing countries, where there often exists a significant lack of trust in government.  

Finally, open data’s properties can amplify the value of data collected by government, by identifying ways for that data to fill important data gaps in society. Quality data is often scarce in lower-income countries, so the potential for value amplification through the release and use of open data is particularly salient.

Four ways developing economies can leverage open data

Our analysis of practices across developing economies in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia showed that the impact of having access to open government data is broader than increased transparency or accountability — though they remain very important attributes. In particular, the change theory we developed indicates that open data can create four types of impact.

1. Open data can improve governance, as it did in Burundi when the country made public information from its results-based financing system.

By linking development aid to pre-determined target results, this information increased the transparency and accountability of the system, and even incentivized government officials to compete to achieve the best outcomes, knowing they’d be made public.

2. Data can also empower citizens by enabling more informed decision-making.

Code for South Africa, now called OpenUp, a nonprofit organization working in the open data space, for example, created the Medicine Price Registry Application — an online platform that allows patients to compare the prices of doctor-prescribed medicines to generic brands. Doctors and citizens alike have used the tool to provide patients access to cheaper medicines, and it has become a sustainable health care intermediary that has impacted many South Africans since its inception.

3. By enabling economic growth and innovation, data also has the power to create new opportunities.

The Aclímate Colombia project is a good example. The NGO-led system leverages data made open by the Colombian government, as well as industry datasets, to create new tools to help smallholder farmers facing upheaval as a result of climate change to plant their crops at optimal times given shifting weather patterns. In its first year of use, Aclímate Colombia is estimated to have saved farmers $3.6 million dollars thanks to improved decision-making around planting.

4. Data can assist governments, NGOs, and citizens in solving major problems.

Open data played a key role in the response to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, for example, helping NGOs map important landmarks such as health facilities and road networks, among other uses.

While these projects created clear, positive impacts, many other open data projects fail to gain traction, lack sustainability, or create unintended negative consequences. Our case study on education information dashboards in Tanzania, for example, showed that despite the platforms being built by passionate people based on good ideas, the lack of long-term strategies for attracting users and achieving sustainability left them largely abandoned a few years after launch.  

To leverage our understanding of why some open data projects fail while others succeed, and to translate that into a checklist for practitioners and policy makers, we created a Periodic Table of Open Data — shown below — which includes 27 variables divided into five broad categories that determine success: Problem and Demand Definition; Capacity and Culture; Governance; Partnerships; and Risks.

Periodic table of open data elements developed by The GovLab. 

Open data can create transformative impacts in developing economies, but those positive impacts are far from automatic. If stakeholders — from practitioners to policy-makers — are going to truly unlock the potential of data, they will need to develop and launch interventions with a number of enabling conditions present, e.g., performance metrics and a strategy for sustainability, while avoiding many potential barriers to impact such as the use of low-quality data or the introduction of privacy issues.

Only by leveraging and applying the evidence about how open data works can we help it live up to its potential.



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