Toward a WDF Sustainable Development Action Plan: Key Insights from the Global Open Data Community

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IODC 16 Roadmap Snap

Toward a WDF Sustainable Development Action Plan: Key Insights from the Global Open Data Community

[This post was written by Fernando Perini, Senior Program Officer for the Open Data for Development Network, for the launch of the International Open Data Roadmap at the UN World Data Forum (WDF) in Cape Town, January 15-18].

Even a casual perusal of the agenda for the inaugural UN World Data Forum (WDF) demonstrates the importance of open data for social and economic development. Three WDF sessions focus explicitly on open data; other sessions clearly, if implicitly, emphasize its importance, from discussions on capacity development and data literacy, to data accessibility and usability, to multi-stakeholder engagement and empowering people with data, to data sharing…

Throughout the three days of the WDF, participating experts and practitioners (and expert-practitioners!) will contribute to and launch a global action plan to harness the power of data for sustainable development. This roadmap will surely include a particular emphasis on the role and importance of open data to help enable achievement of global sustainable development priorities (not least the Sustainable Development Goals).  And the timing couldn’t be better.

Before I explain why, I’ll define my terms: I mean “open data” as defined by the Open Definition and summarized by the International Open Data Charter: “open data is digital data that is made available with the technical and legal characteristics necessary for it to be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone, anytime, anywhere.”

This deceptively straightforward concept has been at the center of countless international symposia, conferences, training events, policy reforms, innovations, and arguments (and combinations thereof) for years. Most recently, in October 2016, the Government of Spain, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the World Bank, and the Open Data for Development Network co-hosted the 4th International Open Data Conference (IODC 2016), which brought together approximately 1700 data scientists, government statisticians, development practitioners, and civil society representatives from 79 countries to discuss trends and mission-critical actions to be taken by the global open data community.  The central theme of IODC 2016 was “Global Goals, Local Impact” — the conference marshalled the work of a lively (and growing) global open data community.

And the result of IODC 2016? The collective development a 2017-2018 International Open Data Roadmap, highlighting concrete actions, opportunities, open data market gaps, and invitations to collaborate around the world on open data-driven development initiatives. A report summarizing this Roadmap will be launched at the WDF itself.

So, here’s why the timing for a WDF action plan on data for sustainable development is perfect: the global open data community is geared up and ready to help move this agenda forward.  The open data community has likewise learned tough lessons and gleaned valuable insights which – while best viewed through the prism of open data – are very relevant to the sustainable development data context.

Issues and Trends Shaping the Open Data Agenda

Based on a review of the main sessions at IODC 2016, a handful of issues and trends shaping open data engagements around the world are summarized in the forthcoming report. These ‘Top Ten’ issues are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a snapshot to inform future activities in the lead-up to IODC 2018.  They might provide insights into trends and issues that condition the implementation of the WDF Action Plan.  They include:

Open data: reaching a new level of maturity. It was apparent from this conference that open data as an issue has reached a new level of maturity. There is evidence that open data is aligning with other important agendas such as the SDGs and national development plans.  IODC 2016 also saw increased energy around regional and sector-specific discussions, for example including standards and best practices in contracting, statistics, transport, and more.  There was also noticeable interest in business models for open data.  The more that open data can be focused on specific challenges, sources and constituencies, the more it will achieve impact and gain momentum.  It is clear that open data in an abstract is only interesting to a limited extent; open data in specific use cases is much more powerful.

Openness is fragile – we need institutions. Institutionalizing open data within larger sectoral initiatives requires ample political will. However, with the backlash on openness seen in many countries, the focus is shifting from individual administrations to the survival across transitions and the development of the long-term institutions. Both advocates and practitioners of open data need to understand what this means in terms of practical action by mapping where key decision-makers and stakeholders reside on a spectrum of support/opposition, and then by identifying strategic activities to achieve traction over time. Timing with respect to election cycles is important, as well as potential connections to policy implementation/reform initiatives, access to information legislation, e-services, information management systems, procurement reforms, and the Open Government Partnership (OGP) national action plans. It will continue to be important to manage the expectations of political actors by trying to balance ‘low-hanging fruit’ and higher-visibility activities (e.g. open data platforms, app development, civic incubators, etc.), with more medium-to-long-term initiatives that will drive openness over time.

Harnessing diversity and pluralism. While IODC 2016 was well-attended, and it was held for the first time outside North America, it was still frequently noted that attendees primarily comprised the ‘usual suspects’, generating a concern that open data may be at risk of becoming a boutique issue for a specialized community of practice. With this in mind, it was emphasized that as the open data community grows in size and (hopefully) diversity, the extent to which the agendas and activities of the organizations and individuals within the community align should be a priority focus area. A robust conversation about whether there is a discernable open data community might be useful in the lead-up to IODC 2018 in Argentina, and if so, whether and how it could/should practically and meaningfully align around shared priorities.

Taking gender issues seriously. Gender was one of the new emerging topics of IODC 2016. There are two major gender related challenges: gender related data and effective representation within the open data community. There is still limited data available about women and gender, although dedicated programs or partnerships like Data2x try to promote the collection of gender data in order to increase gender equality. Within the open data community, women are still not fully represented – from speakers in conferences to a place at the table to discuss how to use open data to solve issues that matter to women. There is still a lot of work to do, including improving the gender balance of the next IODC in 2018.

Broadening efforts to build capacity. Recent analyses indicate that the majority of people around the world still can’t or won’t use open government data. Realizing the potential of open data for decision-making means solving a broader ‘capacity’ problem. This includes making open data and civic technologies work for everyone, creating tools for a broader audience (including the most vulnerable groups), and more meaningful and coordinated efforts to address the root causes of human, financial, and technical challenges to effective open data use. There certainly are still ubiquitous capacity gaps in data literacy, but there are also inadequate salaries for data practitioners, insufficient resources to launch and maintain open data platforms, constraints on opening data in local languages, and maintaining standards and quality of data. There is a need to look at capacity issues more holistically, as a range of issues to be addressed, starting with the need to identify actionable data to be opened based on larger efforts to improve the lives of targeted beneficiaries, including non-users, the poor, the marginalized, and the chronically underserved.

Fighting ‘Open Washing’ and ‘Open Wishing’. IODC 2016 was an opportunity for the open data community to ask some tough questions related to ‘open washing’ or ‘open wishing’. Why is open data succeeding in some contexts and failing to achieve traction in others? How can we encourage meaningful progress toward open data, open government, freedom of information, and more, while serving as an accountability check on government actors who – absent evidence – claim progress? The open data community needs to help identify the line between meaningful commitments and wishful thinking.

Embracing privacy, but with caveats. While open data provides many benefits, there are instances where individual records may threaten individual privacy if released openly. This includes data on individuals such as in sectors like healthcare, education, voter registration, or criminal justice. The community is becoming more sophisticated in its approach to anonymization and considerations of risks of data disclosure.

At the same time, the recognized importance of whistleblowers in massive data disclosures such as the leak of the Panama Papers show that privacy cannot be discussed in isolation. The open data community needs to be a part of, and push for, a larger conversation on the balance between privacy and accessibility and use of open data.

Bringing national statistical offices onboard. National statistical offices (‘NSOs’) emerged as a major stakeholder group. This was an important development, particularly for developing countries, where NSOs are often the primary (if not the only) source of high-quality, official data. Developing strong partnerships with NSOs across developing/developed countries is an immediate priority. NSOs will need the right combination of leadership and receptivity to new ideas, and will need to encourage and support innovation when opportunities arise to reform or update statistical legislation.

Building bridges with open government and Data Revolution colleagues. It is apparent that open data and its related benefits do not exist in a closed environment. Concerted action is needed for open data, open government, and Data Revolution initiatives to be mutually reinforcing. Open data is more useful and actionable when it is a strategic element of a larger development initiative and not pushed forward as a standalone issue.

Strengthening support to local open data efforts around the world. While open data is showing signs of maturity in developed countries and some developing regions, success is still sparse and impact is hard to measure in most parts of the world. Advocates for grassroots open data initiatives in many developing countries need financial, material, and human support. The international community is increasingly interested in data for development. However, it is unclear whether openness has the same level of priority in their agenda. Also, models for implementation that work in the developed world may need to be reconsidered, and merged with other approaches that recognize different circumstances that exist at the local level in developing countries. With this in mind, the business case for open data still needs to be showcased wherever possible (e.g. efficiencies resulting from open data, contributions to economic growth, job creation, etc.). At the same time, more support from the international community is needed to truly harness the potential of open data community for sustainable development around the world.


Birds of a Feather: The IODC Action Plan & the WDF Action Plan

The WDF is indeed the perfect opportunity for the open data-oriented participants to share ideas and understandings with the larger development data community. The new International Open Data Roadmap includes the second IODC Action Plan, with the following action areas planned for 2017-2018:

  1. Broaden political commitment to open data principles
  2. Identify and adopt user-centric open standards
  3. Build capacity to produce and effectively use open data
  4. Strengthen networks to address common challenges
  5. Make action on open data movement more evidence-based
  6. Use open data to support the sustainable development agenda
  7. Connect with local communities

My presentation at the WDF will not only launch the new IODC Roadmap, but also encourage lasting collaboration with the sustainable development data community as a whole, toward promoting and growing open data as raw material for more and better transparency, innovation, and social and economic development around the world. This is an important way to ensure that no one is left behind, including the poorest and most marginalized.  To make the most of the WDF, please prioritize openness in your discussions and plans.  Please also look for entry points for the open data community to help support your work.  Let’s do this together!