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Development iThinkTanks

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On October 7-8, 2010, the World Bank hosted an online event featuring live video coverage from the World Bank/IMF Annual Meetings. Thinkers and practitioners were brought together to discuss the opportunities and challenges in three primary areas of focus for the Bank: Open Development Solutions (including the use of open data), Jumpstarting jobs (looking at opportunities for job growth) and Development challenges (what the changing aid landscape means for the global community’s mission to reduce poverty).

One of the interesting discussions from the event focused on the new wave of access to public data, tools and information that is being facilitated by the World Bank and other institutions around the world. Given these new tools and platforms, the question arises as to how we can help empower citizens to use this data to hold governments accountable, and promote collaboration to help solve long-standing development problems.

This question was discussed by a panel of experts including Andrew McLaughlin (Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House), David Eaves (Open Data Blogger and Activist from Canada), Aleem Walji (World Bank Institute Practice Manager for Innovation) and Tariq Khokhar (Technologist at AidInfo).

Some thoughts from the panelists are outlined below:

Andrew McLaughlin on providing a data platform:

Referencing Tim Berners-Lee he says governments should be in the business of providing raw data full stop. Visualizations are a narrative about the data, and citizens are less likely to trust narratives coming from governments. This is not to say Governments should not produce any visualisations – they should at least as a means to express to citizens what it is they are paying for, and to help in assisting policy makers in evidence based policy making. However, extensive illustrations of data is best left to others. Ultimately it’s better for third parties to be driving the analysis, because they can be bias in their interpretation of the data and use it to structure their own stories.

Aleem Walji on harnessing the ideas of others:

The World bank does a good job of collecting, curating and normalizing lots of information. It does not necessarily have to create the best applications with this data. This is best left to those with a story to tell, and who want to develop their own narratives. While the bank will create some visualisations these are primarily to allow our users and internal staff make sense of the data, rather than exploit its full potential. He explains “we cannot imagine what people will do with our data”.

Explaining the Mapping for Results platform he outlines the benefits of geolocation as a means of visualizing data from a different perspective. It’s up to citizens and development practitioners to take our data and draw different conclusions with it. This can then be used to feedback suggestions to the bank:

Our job is to take the data, frame some of the questions and then let other people draw different conclusions, sometimes challenging us.

David Eaves on vehicles for making use of open data, beyond the apps model (my emphasis):

One of the things that excites me the most is not necessarily apps, but what is the analysis/visualisation we are going to do with this data. My hope is that it’ll be a much broader community of people that will push the bank’s thinking; people from constituencies the bank doesn’t normally hear from…The apps are exciting, but lets think much bigger than apps. I think analysis is going to be the really big opportunity with data. Everyone now can be a think tank.

The discussion also includes comments from Tim O’Reilly on the principles of Open Data, along with Robert Zoellick’s  announcement of the World Bank’s Apps for Development competition. This competition aims to bring together the best ideas from technology developers and development practitioners to create innovative applications using World Bank data:

I’m asking you to create applications for new analysis and new ways to solve the world’s long standing problems. This competition challenges you to develop the best software application; whether web-based, mobile, through SMS, smartphone, desktop or tablet, using world bank data.

Transparency and Open data

Aleem Walji explains the essence of what the World bank is trying to do with Open data as:

recognizing that we don’t have a monopoly on knowledge, analytical rigor, research capacity, or publishing. There are many more development economists, statisticians, health experts, education experts, etc. outside the Bank than inside the Bank.

It reminds me of the rather humbling professional addage, “no matter who you work for, there are smarter people who work outside your organisation”. We’ve recognized it and rather than being intimidated by it, we’re inviting others to help us think better, do better, and co-create solutions.

It’s worth nothing the significant efforts by the World bank in terms of Open data and transparency. A recent report from PublishWhatYouFund (a global campaign for Aid transparency) examined 30 major donors across three categories: high level commitment to transparency; transparency to recipient government; and transparency to civil society. The World Bank was the highest performing donor achieving more than double the transparency score (85.4%) of the lowest.

The World bank’s transparency of Aid data, along with their proliferation of Open data, provides a ideal ecosystem in which to grow communities of software developers and development practitioners to create innovation apps and analysis tools. However, Open data should not simply be thought of as a means upon which to create applications. Rather as David Eaves explains, it should be seen as a platform for analysis upon which an individual or organisation can conduct research, and advocate their own evidence based policies. This follows from Zoellick’s idea of democratizing development economics and allows for iThinkTanks to flourish. These iThinkTanks can serve Eric Swanson’s (World Bank Program manager, Development Data Group) agenda as explained below:

Our goal now is to make these data available to everyone to students, to teachers, to reporters, to government officials, to increase understanding and to stimulate the search for innovative ways to accelerate progress and to fight poverty.

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