Increasing the Development Impact of Open Data

In order to impartially disseminate public information, an organization must design its data liberation strategy with both effective technologies and appropriate public policies in mind.

May 3, 2012
Brian O'Donnell


transparency camp

Image: Sunlight Foundation via Twitter

The Sunlight Foundation’s Transparency Camp is an annual gathering of activists, “hacktivists”, journalists, researchers, data wonks, government employees, and programmers, and the de facto epicenter for the emerging Open Government movement.  Over three days, transparency enthusiasts illuminating every level of government—from local assemblies to international organizations—exchange their successes and challenges in transforming raw data into meaningful change for their communities and stakeholders.

Since the conference’s inception three years ago, a surfeit of new technologies, data, and norms supporting transparency and accountability have emerged. A central problem, which “OpenGov” must now address, is information inequity: who does open information work for? Does access to solely web-based platforms for disseminating government data only exacerbate social and economic inequality? How can we get this information in the hands of the right change agents?

One of OpenGov’s core principles is the notion that government data is a public good. Some have argued that in terms of poverty alleviation, public information might be just as important as access to clean water and education. In order to impartially disseminate public information, then, an organization must design its data liberation strategy with both effective technologies and appropriate public policies in mind. Too frequently, however, something is lost in translation between the technical problem-solvers and the “big picture” policy thinkers.

In this  sense, delivering public data is like building a house: there are future “tenants” (policymakers and end-users) who will “live in” the house but have a vague idea of what an ideal design might look like, and then there are “contractors” executing the design (data experts and programmers). Often missing in this data-delivery process are the “architects”—those who speak both technical and policy languages and can help create a blueprint for success. Indeed, the dual tracks of an upcoming conferencesuggest a split in the global transparency movement that now comprises two distinct yet interrelated camps: the “Open Government” advocates for political change, and the data-driven technologists who enable “Open Data”.

This brings us back to the question of who benefits from the transparency movement. At a session entitled “Open Data in Closed Societies”, journalistsfrom undemocratic states discussed the personal risks of requesting open, machine-readable data in political cultures where bribery, patronage, and coercion are systemic.  Simply providing the technology required for Open Data is no substitute for the complex work of governance reform. As Chief Tech Officer of the USG, Todd Park, pointed out, “You can’t pour data on a wound and heal it”.

When it comes to delivering global development finance data, AidData is uniquely positioned to serve in this “architect” role. As a partnership between university researchers, technology innovators, and development professionals, AidData has the ability to bridge the policy-tech divide in development assistance. In the past year, for example, AidData designed and implemented a randomized controlled trial to identify effective models for collecting grassroots feedback from project beneficiaries, while at the same time building an interactive “Disaster Aid Tracking” dashboard (soon to be released) for the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). To me, Transparency Camp reinforces the idea of this bridge spanning the knowledge gaps between technologists, policy experts, and citizens.

Brian O’Donnell is an AidData Post-Baccalaureate Fellow at the College of William & Mary.