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World Bank Frees Up Development Data

Available in: Français, Español, 中文, العربية
  • Bank Group offers free access to more than 2,000 financial, business, health, economic and human development statistics via a new website: data.worldbank.org
  • An initial 330 indicators are available in French, Spanish and Arabic
  • Experts say open access policy will foster innovation, support evidence-based policymaking

April 20, 2010—The World Bank Group said today it will offer free access to more than 2,000 financial, business, health, economic and human development statistics that had mostly been available only to paying subscribers.

The decision─part of a larger effort to increase access to information at the World Bank─means that researchers, journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), entrepreneurs and school children alike will be able to tap into the World Bank's databases via a new website, data.worldbank.org.

Experts say the Bank's open data initiative has the potential to stimulate more evidence-based policymaking in developing countries by bringing more researchers and innovative analysis into the development process. The move is also likely to stimulate demand for data and increase countries' capacity to produce it, they say.

And, for the first time, data will be available in languages other than English, with an initial 330 indicators translated into French, Spanish and Arabic.

“It’s important to make the data and knowledge of the World Bank available to everyone," World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick said. "Statistics tell the story of people in developing and emerging countries and can play an important part in helping to overcome poverty.”

World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick speaks about the Bank's new open data initiative.

Data for Innovation, Empowerment

Hans Rosling, Gapminder Foundation co-founder and vigorous advocate of open data at the World Bank, said, “It’s the right thing to do, because it will foster innovation. That is the most important thing.”

He said he hoped the move would inspire more tools for visualizing data and set an example for other international institutions.

"The real power of open data is the enormous opportunity to turn data into knowledge and useful applications to enhance transparency and ultimately accountability of all actors in development," added Aleem Walji, manager of the World Bank Institute's new Innovation Practice. "Free and open access to data will empower citizens to get more directly involved in the development process."

Potential applications could "mash up" or combine global datasets from the World Bank's World Development Indicators with micro-level data on aid flows within a country to reveal the extent to which international aid responds to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and poorest segments of society.

Walji said the World Bank will launch an "Apps for Development” challenge later this year to give developers around the world incentives to “transform datasets into new applications to help tackle existing development challenges, such as infant mortality , literacy and extreme poverty."

Many More Eyes Will See Data

Researchers and development experts said they thought the Bank's decision to open its data will have a major impact.

"Absolutely, because our lifeblood is data," says James Foster of The George Washington University, an economist whose research often involves measuring poverty. "Being able to see the world as it is, and tell others about our interpretation in terms of what we see, this is what we thrive on.

"More than that, it’s going to have a great indirect—or maybe direct—effect on the well being of the poor around the world. Because the policies that we’re very interested in doing right are much better informed with better data. And you have many more eyes seeing that data now," Foster said.

In Morocco, economist and statistician Abdelkhalek Touhami from the Institut National de Statistique et d’Économie Appliquée (INSÉA) said the Bank's initiative "lifts a major barrier." Giving researchers access to quality data in a language they can understand will improve the quality of their research, and may inspire governments to open their data as well, he said.

“Right now, there is basically no data available, and it’s very difficult to have access to the data that exists. An initiative like this sends a signal to governments that they need to facilitate access to data,” he said.

Michael Tierney, coordinator of the Aiddata Initiative, which tracks development finance, said increased transparency in country data would promote better donor coordination.

"If you could convince especially non-OECD countries … that there are benefits to transparency, then people like me that study foreign aid, or people who are doing aid coordination who work on, say, water projects in Guatemala, will benefit because then they’ll know, this is what the Russians or the Chinese are doing on water in Guatemala,” he said.

Access to Data From More Than 200 Countries

The new website at data.worldbank.org offers full access to data from 209 countries, with some of the data going back 50 years. Users will be able to download entire datasets for a particular country or indicator, quickly access raw data, click a button to comment on the data, email and share data with social media sites, says Neil Fantom, a senior statistician at the World Bank.

The website has something for everyone. It serves someone who "just has one minute and really knows what they’re looking for, to someone who wants to do research and explore the database, or an application developer who wants to link to the database directly, or to do what we call 'bulk download the database’ and just walk away with it," says Shaida Badiee, director of the World Bank's Development Data Group.

Data come from many different sources including the Bank’s 186 member countries and more than 30 international agencies, private and NGO partners. What is released today includes databases for the World Development Indicators, Africa Development Indicators, Global Economic Monitor, Doing Business, and Global Development Finance.

A Growing Trend

In opening its databases, the Bank Group is joining a growing “open data” trend; both the United States and United Kingdom are opening up government data to the public. The World Bank also recently partnered with Google to make 39 development indicators highly searchable and accessible.

"We’re excited to be part of the open data revolution," says Nicole Frost, among those leading an effort to modernize the World Bank website.

"We’re going to get a new audience for our data that we’ve never seen. The high school kids in Des Moines (Iowa), Dakar (Senegal), and Cairo (Egypt) are going to be getting access to Bank data. We’re going to be so integrated in all kinds of search engines all over the world that we’re going to reach a group of people we’ve never reached before and hope will continue browsing, learning about development issues and things that this organization is committed to."

Bank Changes Course

The Open Data Initiative marks a change in the way the Bank disseminates data. Previously, it relied on a network of private distributors to get the information to 1,000 sites and 25 million registered users worldwide. The World Development Indicators—a popular and widely used set of human development and other data—were initially available 15 years ago on CD-rom and diskettes.


This map showing deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil
is one example of how Bank data can be visualized.

"Now we’re changing course and we’re going to attempt a much different distribution process that relies much more on having people come to us rather than our going out to people and seeing what kind of use they make of the data," says Eric Swanson, program manager and leader of the global monitoring cluster in the World Bank's Development Data Group.

"People now have the skills to access data, to make mash-ups, to make applications," adds Fantom. "When you look at the success of some of the application developers out there they’re using third-party data and we wanted to take advantage of that environment, and we see that as the model for pushing the boundary of use."

"I would like to see this promote the use of data in developing countries, in particular, stimulate evidence-based policy making in our client countries, and stimulate demand for data so that country capacity to produce these data can improve," he adds.

Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, felt lucky to be given a CD-rom with WDI data while a graduate student. "I could never have afforded it."

She said she hopes the World Bank's new open data policy will lead to more frequently updated poverty data and increased innovation.

"The more that people can have access to the data, the more they can really interact with it, think about it, digest it, and experiment with it. That has very good independent value, because in effect by doing so you’re releasing the creativity of many minds, to be able to create and innovate, experiment with the data, and see if they can come up with a more interesting analysis."




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