Open Data

Making data useful for the greatest possible number of people.

Governments, universities, companies, foundations and NGOs – all of them generate vast amounts of data: statistics, medical research results, geographic, meteorological and environmental data and project evaluations. Most of this data is not available to the general public, but the Open Data Movement is set to change that. Large databases can be used to make important new discoveries and to find new correlations and causalities that can improve our quality of life and the work of the social sector.

The Open Data Movement demands that data – not just headline figures, but any information that can be digitalised and analysed – is made accessible to the general public to use freely. The driving forces behind the open data trend technical and socio-cultural in nature. Processing capacities for ever increasing digital content have exponentially increased, making it possible for not only the “final products” to be accessible, but also raw data and the intermediate stages. The Open Data Movement can also be regarded as a reaction to the tightening of copyright laws and laws protecting intellectual property that have been imposed by companies and governments in the last decades to protect their financial interests. This development clashes with an opposing internet culture, where free sharing and open source collaboration are regarded as the ideal, and in which more and more people are calling for open access to the “sovereign knowledge” of these established institutions. 

Open data and transparency improve government policy

Thanks to a series of open government initiatives, more and more governments are starting to make state information more easily available and more transparent (see trend Transparency): over 10,000 datasets are now available on data.gov.uk, and Obama’s US government has set up an open data department that publishes datasets on subjects such as campaign financing, health indicators and public spending online. The GovTrack.us search engine scours the US government servers for available data and “releases” this data by converting it into searchable, standardised and re-usable formats. The Kenyan government has also set up an open data portal, further examples can be seen in Scandinavia, and the trend is spreading. If datasets are available, interested parties can process them into new findings and make these available to the public in the form of meaningful and innovative visualisations, websites and apps. On the website farmsubsidy.org for example, Europeans can find out which agricultural subsidies are being funded with their taxess. In Britain, private commercial initiatives such as TheyWorkForYouallow people to keep tabs on what their MPs are doing on their behalf. For the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, the next phase of the internet will no longer just be shaped by links and the exchange of documents: entire datasets will enable people to seamlessly work together. In the social sector, the trend Open Data presents huge opportunities: data is of great importance in the evaluation of one’s own performance, for analyses of efficiency and evaluations. Before standardised measuring instruments can be developed for social services, NGOs and impact investments (see trend Measurement), vast quantities of data must first be gathered, distributed and analysed. This data can then be processed for the public using tools such as TRASI and help speed up the transition to an outcome-oriented philanthropy. As many social institutions lack the resources to analyse their own data or public data, numerous development institutions are now starting to specifically encourage data processing. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation provided funding for the preparation of infographics on political and social issues, which were then published in the media, e.g. “The Guardian”.

Banks and databases
Notoriously non-transparent development partnerships can profit enormously from Open Data, since it allows them to optimise cash flow, better coordinate projects and share knowledge. The World Bank has been setting a good example of this, incrementally publishing their huge data catalogue since 2010. Over 7,000 development indicators are now available, and demand for it is huge: the data site generates more traffic than the homepage of the World Bank. For anyone who is not an expert in the field of political development, it might come as a surprise how little data is available for many places. In countries such as Nigeria, no-one knows how many health clinics there are, how well these are equipped, how many patients they treat or for what illnesses. The availability of data is not only poor in recipient countries; donor countries only publish a fraction of their expenditure. This is however set to change as part of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), an organisation that campaigns for unified data standards. It’s not just the state, but also foundations who are sitting on hidden data treasure. Valuable knowledge that has been gained through a great deal of work is stored away in foundation archives; documents such as requests for aid, evaluations, final reports, studies on poor social conditions and effective and not so effective solutions – these are usually only used once and that are read by very few people. Such information could be published online and shared with other organisations and the public for free, helping to spread the word about successes and encourage innovation. A growing number of foundations are also starting to have their own performance assessed by the people they fund and the development projects they work on. The resulting Grantee Perception Reports are then published, even when these point out weaknesses of the foundations (see trend Productive Failure).

Conclusion

Open Data is good. Make data that could be helpful to others available in the necessary format: make it searchable, use standardised formats and licences that enable third parties to read, process and distribute the data. Share your knowledge with your own organisation and the public. Open up your archives. Protect privacy by only providing personal data in pseudonymous or anonymous form. Make potentially interested parties aware of your data, organise events such as hack-days, where data experts and programmers come together to analyse and process data.