Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Open Data for Better Government

by Isobel Coleman
January 26, 2012

World Bank President Robert Zoellick, a major supporter of open data initiatives, speaks in at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington in September, 2011 (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters). World Bank President Robert Zoellick, a major supporter of open data initiatives, speaks at the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington in September, 2011 (Yuri Gripas/Courtesy Reuters).


Open data is the new thing in development. In the last three years, the World Bank, the United States, the United Kingdom, Kenya, and now the new Open Government Partnership have made raw data available to the public in forms that can be manipulated and interpreted by techno-savvy people to improve governance. The implications of this are huge, although we are just at the beginning of realizing the potential benefits. Over the long term, providing greater access to raw information – including census tallies, government expenditures, poverty statistics, draft budgets, agricultural data, and government procurement – could make the delivery of public goods far more efficient and effective, lower levels of corruption, and engage citizens in the running of their societies in profoundly new ways. World Bank President Robert Zoellick, an evangelist on the subject of open data, sees it as a way to demystify development economics and bring new brain power to bear on solving the world’s thorniest problems. As he said in a speech at Georgetown in 2010:

We need to recognize that development knowledge is no longer the sole province of the researcher, the scholar, or the ivory tower. It’s about the health-care worker in Chiapas recording her results; it’s about the local official posting the school budget on the classroom door so that parents can complain when their children are shortchanged; it’s about the minister, the academician, the statistician, and the entrepreneur comparing notes on the impact of incentives.

Already, increased access to raw data is being utilized in lots of new ways – in both developed and developing countries. The city of Chicago, for example, has launched a platform,, to help citizens prepare for and deal with winter weather (no small concern in a city that receives over 50 inches of snow each winter). Using the city’s open data, developers have made apps that notify users about parking restrictions and whether their car has been moved or towed as a result. Citizens can also track the progress of snow removal – and stay on top of whether services are being delivered to rich and poor areas equally.

In a very different context, Kenya, too, has been a leader in providing raw data in a useful format to its citizens. In partnership with the World Bank, Google, and Ushahidi (just ranked tenth among the best NGOs in the world by Global Journal), the Kenyan government began making census data available. It has since made available hundreds of more data sets – including budgets and expenditures, health care and education data – that can be downloaded on computers or mobile phones. The process has spawned initiatives by social entrepreneurs who are using the data in new ways, and developers who are designing useful apps. One example is Eduweb, a portal using data from the Ministry of Education that parents can access when choosing schools for their kids. According to a World Bank case-study, “over two-thirds of datasets most frequently downloaded in Kenya were at either the district or county level. This, combined with users’ search behavior, indicates a strong geographic component to user’s information needs with a focus on more granular (or localized) datasets.”

Can open data in areas such as education, health, and infrastructure spending, limit corruption and improve service delivery? Well, there is a great deal of infrastructure and support needed to translate free information into policy changes. Portals will only be useful if high quality, up-to-date data is posted on a regular basis, and it can be very difficult to collect high-quality data in some developing countries (only two of the 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have high collection standards for agricultural data). Low levels of literacy and still-limited access to technology are additional barriers. But the rapid spread of cell phones opens up new opportunities.

Open data is not an end in itself; rather, it is a potentially powerful means to improve governance by empowering people – through information – to demand better, more efficient, less corrupt services. At its core, open data mandates a reform of government through legislation that facilitates cooperation between ministries, departments, and agencies; capacity building in public administration; and dedicated funding to support these initiatives. There is much more to be said on this topic, so stay tuned.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Susan

    The World Bank and IMF often do more harm than good by forcing countries to accept projects and undertake activities that are not in their own best interests. Forcing countries to privatize water and grow crops for export that are not appropriate for land/water resources work to keep the countries in poverty and add profit to corporations. Rather than finance large projects at great cost, the World Bank and IMF should support a range of small projects, investing in small business, agriculture (not with Monsanto seeds) and simple, inexpensive technology. Dams, for example, do more harm than good, at that same time displacing populations. The abuse of economic power to force countries to act against their best interests and contract outsiders to impose false solutions must end.

  • Posted by Greg Michener

    Interesting purview of open-data’s potential. I think a few countries are missing, however: New Zealand (, Australia (, Canada’s pilot site (, among many others, including governments at the subnational level, including British Columbia.

    It should also be noted that the political instinct to secrecy is such that we can never fully depend on the active provision of all data, which is precisely we need functioning freedom of information laws.

  • Posted by Isobel

    You make a good point about the WB at times doing more harm than good. All the more reason to emphasize open data, so that people can understand the decisions their governments are taking and influence them in positive ways.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thanks for these good additions. I have only scratched the surface on open data and its potential in this blog. I will return to this subject again since there are many compelling examples. I encourage other readers to send in your suggestions too.

  • Posted by Karen Hudes

    Data cannot be reliable until staff in the institutions generating the data are free from reprisals when they correct inaccuracies. That is unfortunately not the case under Robert Zoellick’s regime at the World Bank. Whoever pretends otherwise does profound disservice to those constituencies which the World Bank was created to assist.

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