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Open Data Opens Bank

Available in: العربية, Français, 中文
  • One year after the World Bank opened its storehouse of data to the public, usage of datasets and indicators has tripled.
  • In the last year, the Bank has shared data visualization tools with countries, developed a Mapping for Results application, four iPhone apps, and a new tool for tracking aid flows.
  • Sweden partners with the Bank to geocode its development projects together with 16,000 World Bank projects mapped in 79 of the poorest countries.

April 20, 2011--The World Bank opened its vast storehouse of data to the public a year ago. Since then, people have come in droves--at the rate of about 100,000 a week--for thousands of free, curated and searchable datasets on education, poverty, health, water access and numerous other indicators.

The result is nothing short of a "game-changer” for data access at the World Bank, says Neil Fantom, head of the World Bank's open data initiative. “It's gone extremely well -- better than we dared to hope."

In the last year, the Bank became a transparency leader – as ranked by the U.K.-based Publish What You Fund -- as data usage tripled and it released additional data, shared data visualization tools with countries, developed a Mapping for Results application, four iPhone apps, and a new tool for tracking aid flows.

Last week during the World Bank-International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings, the Bank awarded prizes to innovators who used the data and participated in a first-ever Apps for Development contest, released more and updated data through its flagship 2011 World Development Indicators, hosted an event on open data for civil society organizations, and held an Open Forum on the food crisis, incorporating suggestions and feedback from thousands of online participants.

It's all part of an effort to achieve a more open, transparent World Bank. Last week, surrounded by young Apps for Development contest finalists, World Bank President Robert Zoellick described the open data initiative as one of the Bank's "first tangible steps in putting into action our commitment to become a more open institution; to more actively share our knowledge, and to encourage others to put that knowledge to use."

"Ten years ago, we were only starting to speak about transparency,” Zoellick said in an April 6 policy speech. "Today, the World Bank is the only multilateral institution with a wide-ranging Freedom of Information policy; we have thrown open the doors on our research and released over 7,000 datasets; we are designing software applications and creating contests to invent applications so that researchers, practitioners and civil society can crunch their own numbers -- and double check ours."

“The way the World Bank has opened its data, that's creating opportunities,” says Dirk Heine, co-creator of the Apps for Development third-place winner Yourtopia – Development beyond GDP. “It's creating a huge new chance for research, particularly outside the established universities.”

Added long-time advocate of open data Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation, “We are happy with the World Bank's open data policy. The change towards an open democratic data policy is changing thinking in other organizations and increasing demands from users.”

A 'Transformational Agenda'

Next, the World Bank and others are talking about the potential for data to monitor development results and aid flows from multiple sources, foreign and domestic, and to improve World Bank transparency, enable citizen feedback, and promote government accountability -- also a theme of Zoellick's recent policy speech.

"Open data is really a change -- a transformational agenda -- for all of us," says Shaida Badiee, director of the Bank's Development Data Group. "It's a new way of doing business, and to succeed you really have to work together. We've seen the impact is tremendously high and important for solving development problems."

Badiee says demand for data is growing, especially among researchers and academics. Many are eager for geocoded data and raw data from household surveys and Bank research, as well as hard-to-get sub-national and sub-regional data. The Bank now has 378 microdata sets from household surveys in developing countries, representing a quarter million variables on its new microdata website, says Fantom.

Most of the data available from are aggregated national data. Some 3,000 indicators are accessible through the Bank's applications programming interface (API). In addition, the World Development Indicators’ 1,200 indicators are available in English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.

Sweden Partners with Mapping for Results

The challenge now is to get a “hyperlocal” view of development that, among other things, shows whether resources are flowing to the areas where the needs are greatest, says Aleem Walji, manager of innovation practice at the World Bank Institute (WBI). “That's where we want to work with our member governments to start making progress on making sub-national data more accessible.”

To that end, Sweden has partnered with the Mapping for Results initiative to geocode and add Swedish development projects to the 16,000 World Bank project locations already mapped in 79 of the poorest countries.

Sweden is among the latest countries to join the open data movement, launching a website this month,, to free up public records and overseas development aid data from 1975 through 2010.

“You have transparency or not,” said Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson at a Bank-IMF Spring Meetings open data event. “It's like being half pregnant. You can't be half pregnant. This is something we have to do.”

“I think it's very important the World Bank is taking leadership here,” she added. “It has been helpful to see what the World Bank is doing and to learn from that. This is an agenda that is developing … it's an agenda that you can't stop, hopefully.”

Open Data No Panacea

Experts warn, however, that open data itself isn't enough to achieve good development outcomes. “It's very powerful, but unless you close the [accountability] loop between citizens and governments, this is glamour,” says WBI Vice President Sanjay Padhan “And we don't need glamour, we need results.”

Eventually, the Bank and others would like to update data in real time using information and telecommunications technology like mobile phones to collect feedback, such as whether health services are delivered or teachers show up on time.

“If you don't have strong institutions of civil society, driven citizens, and responsive governments, data and apps don’t make much of a difference,” says Walji. “But for countries that have those institutions, they are saying ...give us the tools, and give us the information, give us the way to increase our advocacy and our effectiveness. Data is fuel, and strong vehicles equipped with fuel can go a long way. This is the lowest hanging fruit we want to target.”

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