Is Open Data Just A Flash in the Pan Movement?

Open data has generated a lot of buzz recently, prompting governments to make increasing amounts of data publicly accessible and catalyzing new partnerships with private sector and civil society actors around the use and reuse of this information. How much of the open data movement is flash versus substance? As an AidData Summer Fellow with the Center of Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension and Development (CEAPRED) in Nepal, I have witnessed firsthand that ensuring that open aid reporting programs are responsive to the real needs of citizens is key to maximizing their impact. My recent participation in Open Nepal’s Data Literacy Bootcamp underscores this point.

On June 3rd and 4th, I participated in Open Nepal Week’s Data Literacy Bootcamp in Kathmandu, supported by the Open Aid Partnership. A coalition of organizations, including Freedom Forum, Young Innovations, NGO Federation of Nepal, Development Initiatives, and Development Gateway, trained with over 80 Nepali journalists, developers, coders, and civil society representatives to find, extract, and analyze public data. Participants learned how to consolidate data and create visualizations using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) platforms and Java applications. A 48-hour competition enabled participants to put their new knowledge to practical use as they conceptualized business plans for digital or web applications leveraging open data. Sponsors Google, the World Bank Institute, and African Media Initiative, envisioned the competition as empowering citizens to utilize open data.

Varsha Upraity, a Research Officer at CEAPRED, proposed an idea for an app that would report on whether the user is meeting their daily nutritional requirements, and make recommendations for local market, clinics, and support groups. Engaging remote and severely disadvantaged communities proved to be an obstacle in planning Varsha’s app, which would be primarily web or SMS-based and thus inaccessible to many high-need areas. Inevitably, some users would be left out. This raised a critical question: how could we prevent this from happening?

Designing a data-driven application responsive to the needs of even the most disadvantaged communities is a challenge that is not unique to Varsha’s experience. Transparent data reporting and visualizations offer a powerful way to inform the public about development progress. Yet, there are broader questions for policy makers and open data advocates regarding how the Open Data movement defines its goals and what success should look like. The answers are critical to informing the degree to which inclusivity and consideration of citizens factor into the creation of new apps.

Experiences such as the Nepal Open Data Literacy Bootcamp remind us that open data and the applications it spawns can help build the capacity of citizens to track and evaluate information on their country’s development. It is equally apparent that merely releasing data or developing new data driven apps does not necessarily address issues of inclusivity, representation and participation across society.  However, these issues remain largely unaddressed in spite of the rapid growth of the Open Data movement. I would submit that, as the Open Data movement evolves in Nepal and elsewhere, these issues should be front and center and inform the design of solutions that leverage both data and human capabilities.

Madeleine Clark is an AidData Summer Fellow with the Center of Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension, and Development (CEAPRED) in Nepal. 
Tags: open developmentNepalopen data