Democratizing Development Economics through Open Data

by Richard Fahey on 04/10/2010

World Bank President Robert Zoellick made a fascinating speech last month, in which he urged a sweeping new approach to development economics research. He outlined how the World Bank would change its research model to better tap into the experiences of developing countries.

The new initiative is called “Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions,” and aims to make research data and analysis more easily accessible to development practitioners and policymakers.

Development Research

Referencing British philosopher David Hume, who said “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence”, Zoellick questioned whether the set of data and analytic tools now available is sufficient to answer the most pressing questions facing developing countries today:

Too often the positive outcomes of research for policymakers seem to be occasional by products of research rather than its objective from the outset.

Too often research economists seem not to start with the key knowledge gaps facing development practitioners, but rather search for questions they can answer with the industry’s currently favorite tools.

He acknowledged the need for evidence-based best practice – and hand-on experience – to guide the research agenda:

We need to know what works: we need a research agenda that focuses on results. To do so, we will need to gather more evidence and data to assess the effectiveness of development efforts, including aid…

I believe we need a more practical approach —- one that is firmly grounded in the key knowledge gaps for development policy. One that is geared to the needs of policymakers and practitioners — as a primary focus, not as an academic afterthought.One that throws open the doors to all those with hands-on experience.

To this end he suggests economists, policymakers and academics should re-examine the economies of developing countries through more accessible data and use of new technologies.

There is a new opportunity, and certainly a pressing need, for a dynamism in development economics. Software has brought new tools; the Internet has brought new communications; rising economies have brought new experiences.

Open Data, but censorship of conclusions?

The Wall Street Journal and others have highlighted the debate ignited as a result of the speech. Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence, said Zoellick’s comments were “generally not only in the right direction, but very useful”.

Harvard economist Dani Rodrik called the speech “forthright and courageous”:

The speech hits all the right notes: the need for economists to demonstrate humility, eschew blueprints, search for differentiated solutions suited to context, learn from the actual policies of successful emerging economies, focus on evaluation but not at the expense of the big questions.

AidInfo (a non-profit concerned with making aid more transparent) also welcomed the speech:

We warmly welcome both the attitude of the World Bank towards democratising data, and the steps they are taking towards it…

Talking to donors over the last year about releasing aid data, it is striking how often they want to know exactly who will use the information and for what purpose…

We are pressing the view that donors should not see themselves as the only, or even the main, providers of information to end users; they should make it possible for other organisations to access information and provide it to people who need it.

Others, however, were more skeptical about the speech. New York University economist William Easterly, formerly of the World Bank, described the comments as “amazingly presumptuous.” He says the current system of economic research, where ideas are picked apart by other economists, works well, but World Bank researchers often make no attempt to publicize their findings, thus hindering the options for debate.

He also notes how research can be subject to censorship, and questions whether this would change with “researchers’ participation in the ‘democraticized’ debate”.

The World Bank’s chief of research, Martin Ravallion, responded saying:

I have never been told what conclusions I should reach, and I doubt very much that anyone told Bill Easterly what conclusions he should reach in his many years working for the Bank’s research department.

Indeed, Ravallion is a prominent supporter of a new kind of research platform to make it easier for anyone to interrogate development data for their own purposes.

World Bank as a Platform

Tim O’ Reilly’s oft discussed Government as a Platform is the central theme of Zoellick’s “Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions” initiative. In order to make research more relevant to developing countries, the tools to enable it should be “democratized”, allowing researchers to collaborate with professionals in developing countries.

No longer can the model solely be to research a specific issue and write a paper hoping someone will read it. The new model must be “wholesale” and networked. It must increasingly open information and knowledge to others by giving them the tools to do the economic research themselves.

Martin Ravallion recently blogged about this new “wholesaling model” under which the emphasis switches to producing the tools for others to do the research and providing open access to those tools. He explained three objectives for such an initiative:

  1. Empowering Researchers – to do better research to inform development policy and development practice. This changes the focus of the traditional “capacity building” model from the task of “teaching the lessons from past research” to facilitating new learning in specific contexts.
  2. Collaborative Retailing model – ensuring World Bank staff and academics in rich countries can work more closely with colleagues in developing countries as full peers.
  3. More open and transparent policy analysis – The Bank can play an important role in reducing the costs of understanding even the most sophisticated policy analysis, given that technical capabilities have increased among key stakeholders.

This ‘wholesaling model’, however, is predicated upon the Bank making available online much more of the information it collects on countries to help local researchers and aid workers.

The “Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions,” initiative is intended to move this model further by providing a user-friendly data source, free and open to the public. Zoellick explained how this is a fundamental shift from today’s “elite retail” model of research:

This needs to be a fundamentally new way of searching for development solutions, in a networked development architecture, where none dominates and all can play a part

This new research ecosystem is intended to (my emphasis):

Open the treasure chest of the World Bank’s data and knowledge to every village health care worker, every researcher, everyone.

Today, the Bank remains the largest single source of development knowledge. But knowledge must be opened to all…

We need to democratize and demystify development economics, recognizing that we do not have a monopoly on the answers.

We need to throw open the doors, recognizing that others can find and create their own solutions. And this open research revolution is underway…

We need to recognize that development knowledge is no longer the sole province of the researcher, the scholar, or the ivory tower. It’s about the health-care worker in Chiapas recording her results; it’s about the local official posting the school budget on the classroom door so that parents can complain when their children are shortchanged; it’s about the Minister, the academician, the statistician, and the entrepreneur comparing notes on the impact of incentives.

This release of data is already underway with the World Bank’s Open Data initiative. The initiative provides information on more than 2,000 financial, business, health, economic and human development indicators. It recently tripled the amount of data on the site and introduced new and improved mapping and visualisation features to improve “data-driven decision making”.

Ravallion explains how this new model should lead to greater transparency and collaboration in the analysis of development data:

This new model for how we do research will combine open access to data with open access to the analytic tools used to inform policy discussions using those data. Our vision is that data, the knowledge and the solutions to development problems will ultimately be generated collaboratively by those who have most to gain from the success of those solutions.

Transparency

Governments, civil society organizations, aid watchdogs have all demanded greater transparency from the World Bank. Government’s around the world have also faced demands for increased openness, and have responded accordingly with open data initiatives and directives. The World Bank has faced such demands and answered these with developments such as:

It is also launching an Apps for Development Competition to encourage and identify new, innovative tools and applications using World Bank data. Such app competitions have been run by many government authorities in recent years, and have served to highlight the potential of data for the development of citizen centric web/mobile applications.

The World Bank is following the open data lead set by many governments, and making available online much more of the information it collects on countries. Zoellick understands that researchers and other professionals in the field should be able to examine the data and assumptions behind World Bank reports, and interrogate this information to draw their own conclusions. What the Sunlight Foundation does with Government data, Aidinfo and others should be able to do with World Bank data.

With this speech Zoellick has been described as a Development 2.0 advocate. The overall theme of openness, transparency and collaboration represent a fascinating change in how the World Bank views development data, and its research methodologies on aid effectiveness. Now we just need to ensure the data is of high enough quality, to remove any suggestions the initiative is – like some Government data initiatives – ‘more style than substance’.

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