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Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries

Transparent Chennai was recently selected to participate in the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project. The project is funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre and is managed by the World Wide Web Foundation. The broader project will explore the use of open data in diverse settings by bringing together researchers who will write 17 different case studies of open data and its uses across 14 countries. Despite the many promised benefits of open data and a plethora of open data initiatives across the world, there is an absence of a deeper understanding of its actual impacts and challenges. The ODDC project sets out to do just that: generate evidence on the emerging impacts of Open Data in developing regions that can then be used to inform government, donor, and civil society strategies on the issue.

The first full network meeting of the project took place between April 24 and 26, 2013 in the London offices of the Open Data Institute. The two-day meeting brought the project leaders of all the case studies together to discuss research issues and to come to a shared understanding of a research framework. The ODDC project was formally launched by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and founder of the Web Foundation on the evening before the meeting at a reception at Lancaster House hosted by the Open Government Partnership steering committee.

The first day was dedicated to all participants learning about the background of the project. Professor Nigel Shadbolt presented the history of open data in the UK, starting with two powerful historical stories of data analysis: the coxcombs diagram used by Florence Nightingale to show the relation between poor sanitation and deaths of soldiers in the Crimean War and John Snow’s cholera map showing water taps and cholera deaths which prompted an investigation of the relationship between contaminated water and the disease. While he ascribed the presence of the open data initiative in the UK to a combination of ‘politics and luck’, he ascribed its continued success to the creation of evidence of the impact of open data.

Professor Shadbolt also discussed the role of web technology in driving the marginal cost of open data down but highlighted other important aspects that would be crucial to the success of open data initiatives across the world. One of them was the importance of standardising data sets so that they are operable across domains and environments. For instance, data from different domains, such as geography, media, biology and history, could be exchanged and meaningfully interpreted. For this it would be necessary to have certain core reference data sets, such as geospatial data, which would be central to facilitating linkages between different data sets. Core reference data can be defined as “the most important data held by each government department and other publicly funded bodies…and form the foundation for a range of other datasets…by providing points of reference and interconnection“.[1] Not only would all the data sets need to be made available, which is what the web technology enables, but the interrelations and the explanations of the relations be explained, as also the interrelated data. For this Shadbolt pointed to the potential of the next version of web technology – semantic web technology – as a tool. He concluded by drawing attention to the need to create ecosystems of open data, which requires capacities to be built to encourage both the demand as well as the supply of open data across the world.

This was followed with a discussion on the approaches to open data research. One kind of study undertaken by the Web Foundation is that on open data feasibility, which looks at the readiness and the resources available in a country before initiating an open data portal. Typically, high-level politicians express enthusiasm about the idea and immediately want a portal to publish all government data. However, simply publishing data does not automatically guarantee its usefulness. It is critical to assess the political, economic, social, legal, technical and organisational resources in a country available to support implementation of an open data initiative. For example, Kenya launched its open data portal in July 2011 but in the absence of a freedom to information legislation, the question of what information is public and private remains undefined and continues to pose a challenge to the country’s open data initiative. The Web Index is one way to evaluate these resources and also to estimate the likely impact of an open data initiative. So far, the impacts have relied on anecdotes in the absence of research, and the ODDC project aims to use rigorous case studies to fill this gap. At this stage, it is possible only to speak of the emerging impacts of opening data: how is it being used, whether there are unintended consequences, and how far have the outcomes deviated from expected ones.

On the second day the participants discussed the project’s research framework and also shared details of the context of open data in their own countries and issue areas. There were lots of interesting questions raised and experiences shared. But that deserves another blog or two!

You can follow the Transparent Chennai blog and website for more updates and discussions on our case study. You can also know more about the project through the regular newsletters and the Open Data Research network website.


[1] http://data.gov.uk/blog/developing-a-national-core-reference-data-set

Written by Satyarupa Shekhar, researcher, Transparent Chennai