If you build it… will they come?

GovLab publishes Key Findings Report on the impacts of Open Data 

What do datasets on Danish addresses, Indonesian elections, Singapore Dengue Fever, Slovakian contracts, Uruguayan health service provision, and Global weather systems have in common? Read on to learn more…  

On May 12, 2016, more than 40 nations’ leaders gathered in London for an Anti-Corruption Summit, convened by UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Among the commitments made, 40 countries pledged to make their procurement processes open by default, with 14 countries specifically committing to publish to the Open Contracting Data Standard.

This conference and these commitments can be seen as part of a larger global norm toward openness and transparency, also embodied by the Open Government Partnership, Open Data Charter, and increasing numbers of Open Data Portals.

As government data is increasingly published openly in the public domain, valid questions have been raised about what impact the data will have: As governments release this data, will it be accessed and used? Will it ultimately improve lives, root out corruption, hold answers to seemingly intractable problems, and lead to economic growth?*

Omidyar Network – having supported several Open Data organizations and platforms such as Open Data Institute, Open Knowledge, and Web Foundation – sought data-driven answers to these questions. After a public call for proposals, we selected NYU’s GovLab to conduct research on the impact open data has already had. Not the potential or prospect of impact, but past proven impact. The GovLab research team, led by Stefaan Verhulst, investigated a variety of sectors – health, education, elections, budgets, contracts, etc. – in a variety of locations, spanning five continents.

Their findings are promising and exciting, demonstrating that open data is changing the world by empowering people, improving governance, solving public problems, and leading to innovation. A summary is contained in this Key Findings report, and is accompanied by many open data case studies posted in this Open Data Impact Repository.

Of course, stories such as this are not 100% rosy, and the report is clear about the challenges ahead. There are plenty of cases in which open data has had minimal impact. There are cases where there was negative impact. And there are obstacles to open data reaching its full potential: namely, open data projects that don’t respond to citizens’ questions and needs, a lack of technical capacity on either the data provider and data user side, inadequate protections for privacy and security, and a shortage of resources.

But this research holds good news: Danish addresses, Indonesian elections, Singapore Dengue Fever, Slovakian contracts, Uruguayan health service provision, Global weather systems, and others were all opened up. And all changed the world by empowering citizens, improving governance, solving public problems, and leading to innovation. Please see this report for more.    


* Two additional questions are often raised:

1) Isn’t access to most government data a right in and of itself, as this information belongs to the people? Our answer, briefly, is yes. But as governments work to be open by default, they must try to prioritize which datasets will be the most helpful to release first.

2) Aren’t there privacy concerns around opening certain datasets? Yes, absolutely. GovLab’s report also raises privacy as a key concern, and several case studies (e.g., Brazil – Open Budget Portal, US – Eightmaps, Singapore – Dengue Cluster Map, and US – New York City Business Atlas) tackle this issue directly.

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