• Opinion
  • September 27, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

To turn the open data revolution from idea to reality, we need more evidence

Opinion: Ironically, the field is held back by an absence of good data on open data

This opinion piece was written by Stefaan G. Verhulst. He is the co-founder of the GovLab, and co-author (with Andrew Young) of Global Impact of Open Data (2016) and Open Data in Developing Countries (2017).


The idea that we are living in a data age — one characterised by unprecedented amounts of information with unprecedented potential — has  become mainstream. We regularly read “data is the new oil,” or “data is the most valuable commodity in the global economy.”

Doubtlessly, there is truth in these statements. But a major, often unacknowledged problem is how much data remains inaccessible, hidden in siloes and behind walls.

For close to a decade, the technology and public interest community has pushed the idea of open data. At its core, open data represents a new paradigm of information and information access.

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Rooted in notions of an information commons — developed by scholars like Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom — and borrowing from the language of open source, open data begins from the premise that data collected from the public, often using public funds or publicly funded infrastructure, should also belong to the public — or at least, be made broadly accessible to those pursuing public-interest goals.

“Open data begins from the premise that data collected from the public should also belong to the public”

The open data movement has reached significant milestones in its short history. An ever-increasing number of governments across both developed and developing economies have released large datasets for the public’s benefit.

For example: New York City requires that all public data be published on a single web portal. The current site contains over 17,000 datasets that fuel projects on topics as diverse as school bullying, sanitation, and police conduct; Brazil makes government budget data available to the public to combat corruption and enable citizen participation in budgeting; and Denmark’s Building and Dwelling Register releases address data to the public free of charge instead of requiring users to pay each municipality for access. A follow-up study found that society saved €62 million ($73m) as a result.

Similarly, a growing number of private companies have “Data Collaboratives” leveraging their data — with various degrees of limitations — to serve the public interest.

For example: the Spanish bank BBVA worked with the United Nations to help officials measure and understand disaster resilience; Twitter provided MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines with full access to a real-time, public stream and archive of tweets to help it map and analyse social systems; and after the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, the mobile operator NCell worked with the Swedish non-profit Flowminder to study population displacement and facilitate international response efforts.

“The field has trouble scaling projects beyond initial pilots”

Despite such initiatives, many open data projects (and data collaboratives) remain fledgling. The field has trouble scaling projects beyond initial pilots. In addition, many potential stakeholders — private sector and government “owners” of data, as well as public beneficiaries — remain sceptical of open data’s value. Such limitations need to be overcome if open data and its benefits are to spread. We need hard evidence of its impact.

Ironically, the field is held back by an absence of good data on open data — that is, a lack of reliable empirical evidence that could guide new initiatives.

At the GovLab, a do-tank at New York University, we study the impact of open data. One of our overarching conclusions is that we need a far more solid evidence base to move open data from being a good idea to reality.

“We need a far more solid evidence base to move open data from being a good idea to reality”

What do we know? Several initiatives undertaken at the GovLab offer insight. Our ODImpact website now includes more than 35 detailed case studies of open government data projects. These examples provide powerful evidence not only that open data can work but also about how it works.

Our work shows that open data can usher social transformation in four critical ways. Open data can improve governance in places like Slovakia, which opened its procurement process to public scrutiny to combat corruption. It can empower citizens in places like Kenya, which used its GotToVote! initiative to help citizens navigate the voter registration process. Through projects like Aclímate Colombia, which helps farmers respond to shifting weather patterns, it can create economic opportunity. Open data can help solve public problems like the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.

Together, these and other examples of impact make a compelling case to policymakers, private companies and citizens who may be wondering about the value of open data or considering new initiatives.

We have also launched an Open Data Periodic Table to better understand what conditions predispose an open data project toward success or failure. For example, having a clear problem definition, as well as the capacity and culture to carry out open data projects, are vital. Successful projects also build cross-sector partnerships around open data and its potential uses and establish practices to assess and mitigate risks, and have transparent and responsive governance structures.

“With evidence, we can bring about genuine social, economic and political transformation”

We must continue to make the case — to donors, governments, and the private sector — of the importance of an evidence base to move open data from an idea to reality. We need resources not only to conduct research but also to disseminate findings in innovative ways and build more successful open data projects.

Existing lessons — the fruits of experimentation and research since the dawn of the open data era — should be integrated from the start into new open data initiatives.

This week the International Open Data Conference and the Open Data Research Summit will convene in Buenos Aires. Together, they will assess the current status of open data projects, and help the field grow and evolve.

Through these kinds of initiatives, we can share evidence for open data’s success. Only with such an empirical foundation — drawing on lessons and experiences from around the world, and across sectors — can the many potential benefits of open data manifest. With evidence, we can bring about genuine social, economic, and political transformation. — Stefaan G. Verhulst

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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