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Experts: Opening Data Will Drive Global Knowledge

Available in: Español, ภาษาไทย, العربية, Français
  • Open data advocates Hans Rosling and Beth Noveck praise World Bank decision to open data to the public.
  • Competition will bring innovative new ways to visualize data and change the way people look at the world.
  • The real goal is to go from raw data to knowledge and from knowledge to better understanding of global problems.

May 24, 2010—The World Bank’s decision to throw open the doors and offer free public access to its data will inspire new ways of looking at the world and new opportunities to solve global problems, two leading advocates said at the World Bank in Washington last week.

Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation and US Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck said the Bank’s open data initiative encourages greater transparency in government and institutions and accelerates the drive for more and better data, including at the sub-national level.

Rosling and Noveck added they expect the World Bank’s move will unleash competition and perhaps even ‘wiki’-like collaboration as innovators pore over the data, look for mistakes, mash it up with other data, and make it accessible to wider audiences.

One of the most important things the World Bank can do now, they said, is “get out of the way” and let the innovators go to work.

“I like competition,” said Rosling, whose data visualization software Trendalizer was designed on the premise that most people have only limited ability to absorb numbers.

“I could see a lot of software investments that could link to the free data you have here…there is such a lot of space for innovation—that is what I like about your new policy…It’s very important we allow this innovation to happen.”

Greater access to data will help dispel commonly held but erroneous notions about other countries, he said.

“The world view is a narrative – it’s a narrative we got from our parents, our teachers, our employers and our culture, and to change that narrative with good data and good statistics takes more than numbers.”

“But it can’t be done without the good numbers. And this is what we see we can do. We can really represent a completely different way of looking at the world here.”

20,000 Links to New Data Website

Last month, the World Bank Group announced free access to more than 2,000 financial, business, health, economic and human development indicators that had previously been available by subscription.

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,

Since the announcement, the website has had 1.6 million page views, and 80,000 downloads of the data. About 20,000 links to are coming from non—World Bank websites.

The United States, UK and Dutch governments have also made their data available to the public in a growing trend toward open data.

The US government’s 1-year-old website has gone from offering 47 datasets initially to over 250,000 datasets; 97 million people have visited, said Noveck, author of Wiki Government.

The real goal is to go from raw data to knowledge and from knowledge to better understanding of how we improve the solutions to global problems.

—Beth Noveck

She said opening up data is allowing the US government to solve problems by tapping the expertise of the country and the world. For example, the US Department of Agriculture is sponsoring a new “apps for healthy kids” competition to find a solution for childhood obesity.

Noveck added that her office has been contacted by several governments interested in the US open-government policy.

“I hope over the next year or two we can help to spur this in the right direction to get every country, every level of government interested in making their data available to inform and improve the way we make decisions in the global environment.”

Invest in Data, Build Statistical Capacity

Noveck said she hoped the World Bank would continue to invest in data collection, including in the knowledge and expertise of people on the ground who contribute to datasets.

“The real goal is to go from raw data to knowledge and from knowledge to better understanding of how we improve the solutions to global problems,” she said.

“And that means focusing on data, letting other people engage in data, and also invest in strategies to get civic participation and get people working with, playing with, and using that data most effectively.”

Rosling listed health and income subnational data, especially for large countries like China and India, and debt information for high income countries as data he would like to see collected.

Software such as Trendalizer is “hypothesis-generating” and a way to communicate research, but “doesn’t replace research in any way, whatsoever,” he warned.

“This is the time to invest in statistics. This is the time to cherish the experience we have in statistics. I would really like to honor the World Bank World Development Indicator (WDI) group for having done such visionary work many years ago in compiling data in unified format across the sectors. This is the valuable thing with WDI.”

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