New Student Competition Searches for Big Ideas Using Open Data

Competitions like Big Ideas are important not only to support student creativity, but also to challenge AidData and the greater development community.

September 4, 2013

Pat Austria

Dr. Raj Shah and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park describe open data as “a remarkable new tool…to ensure dignity and opportunity for people around the world”. Many academics, development professionals, and thought leaders share their belief in the power of open governance. The world is undoubtedly excited about the potential of open data with  numerous governments and organizations making their data publicly accessible for citizens to use and reuse. Nonetheless, the question still remains – how do we go from publishing this data to actually leveraging it as tools for policy makers, aid workers and citizens to solve development problems? The Open Data/Open Governance category of the Big Ideas Competition sponsored by AidData, the Blum Center of the University of California at Berkeley and USAID hopes to answer just that.

Hosted by UC Berkeley, the Big Ideas Competition has enjoyed 10 years of tremendous success. It calls on students to propose innovative solutions across a number of categories such as poverty alleviation or social justice. Given the rising popularity and prominence of open data, it seemed appropriate that an Open Data/Open Governance category be created. From there, the Big Ideas @ Berkeley, AidData and USAID collaboration was born. The Open Data/Open Governance category challenges students to leverage publicly available datasets in addressing the world’s most pressing issues. Students can propose projects in the form of anything from mapping visualizations to web platforms, and can span across numerous focus areas such as transparency and accountability, spatial analysis, monitoring and evaluation, and crowd sourcing. This “call to innovate” leverages AidData’s vast expertise in the open data field, UC Berkeley’s rich history of creative thinking and social responsibility with USAID’s commitment to harnessing the intellectual leadership of seven universities across the HigherEducation Solutions Network to further development outcomes. The competition provides students with a new perspective and approach to traditional problems in development. It challenges them to take open data beyond excel spreadsheets and towards tangible tools and solutions. AidData has seen first-hand the great innovations that can come from using open datasets and is eager to learn more. The center’s activities in foreign aid tracking and geocoding platforms highlight just a few ways in which people are beginning to explore the potential of open data.

Competitions like Big Ideas are important not only to support student creativity, but also to challenge AidData and the greater development community. We must continue to push boundaries and to provide perspectives and tools that improve the delivery of development, not just the study of it. Open data’s potential lies in its ability to relay complex information and engage people in the conversation. The Economist has called open data the “new goldmine,” and asserts, “no one has a clue what breakthroughs open data will allow.” We hope that the Big Ideas Open Data/Open Government challenge will begin to uncover this potential, and we are excited to see the innovations that result.

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Pat Austria is a Policy Outreach Consultant with AidData working on Grant Challenge Competitions. The Big Ideas competition is now accepting entries from students at seven university development labs funded through the USAID Higher Education Solutions Network, including: the College of William & Mary, UC Berkeley, Duke University, Makerere University (Uganda), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Texas A&M University. For more information, visit

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institutions to which the authors belong.