Originally, the acute frustration which led me to invent the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989 was all about documents. The frustration was that all kinds of documents were sitting in disks on machines. Even at a very advanced place like the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), a networked world in which most computers in my environment were connected, one couldn’t easily browse through all the files. The WWW design offered a solution, and the world of linked documents exploded dramatically.
However, even at the first web conference in 1994, it was clear that a rather complex and potentially more profound frustration (and opportunity) existed when you looked at data rather than documents. Data, after all, is stuff machines can handle, and while the web of documents might have seemed intoxicating to early web ‘surfers’, the lure of doing the same thing to the data was that we could create a world in which it would be programs – not just people – that would enjoy the data.
For data, as for documents, the value of any part of the web is increased by the amount of other stuff out there. For documents it is the ability to follow links, but for open data it is the ability to also interconnect and join, to summarise and compare, to monitor, extrapolate, to infer.
The tip of the iceberg
We have seen some of the power and acceleration which happens when governments such as the UK and US have put data on the web. But this is the tip of the iceberg. The information about spending, agriculture, health and education that lies behind locked databases could be used to dramatically improve people’s lives. When governments begin to release data openly on the web, the growing movement of hackers and activists and even internal government agencies and corporations can begin to use the previously unconnected and undissected numbers, images and graphs to create new ways for you to access valuable new information.
Take the example of the UK aid funded Southern Africa Regional Programme on Access to Medicines and Diagnostics (SARPAM). This is an organisation that painstakingly worked with insiders in health ministries and local health professionals to collect and publish public data on the price and availability of medicines. They revealed that some governments were being charged enormously higher rates – up to 25 times more – for the same medicines. The findings enabled governments to put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to reduce the prices.
Imagine how quickly impacts such as these would multiply if governments were to openly publish this data, not just about the cost of medicine, but also about student attendance rates or crop productivity compared to use of pesticides. Scientific data could help researchers to find new drugs, given genomics and the biology of individuals, and the massive amount of data needed to understand and combat climate change would be available to all who work on it.
The benefit of open data is different but also very important in developing countries. For example, Ghana’s government in collaboration with the Web Foundation, is well on its way to creating a portal for the release of open, accessible public data. The Ghana Open Data Initiative (GODI) just held Ghana’s first data bootcamp, bringing together journalists and developers to find, extract and analyse public data to tell better informed news stories.
These developments are encouraging, but the simple message to governments around the world must be consistent and forceful: raw data, now! Opening up data is fundamentally about more efficient use of resources and improving service delivery for citizens. The effects of that are far reaching: innovation, transparency, accountability, better governance and economic growth.
I’m interested to see the results of the Open Data Research network, which is bringing together researchers from the global south to explore the emerging impacts of open data in developing countries, and to better understand how it is impacting upon decision making and implementation. The network is being led by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and the World Wide Web Foundation, an organisation I founded to keep the Web free (as in freedom) and open, and to help to bring it within the reach of all.
The Web Foundation is leading the charge on other fronts as well. In September, we launched The Web Index, a decision making tool for policymakers and others to understand the web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations. It covers 61 countries, incorporating indicators that assess the political, economic and social impact of the web, and includes a subset of indicators that show openness on the web. It includes a component about open data, and of course the index itself is available as open data.
I commend the leadership and commitment of the UK in the open data effort. I was honoured to be asked by former PM Gordon Brown to kick-start the open data movement in the UK. PM David Cameron has continued to put open data at the heart of his agenda and has been a key supporter of the new Open Data Institute (ODI). I expect the Open Up! event taking place in London next week will be a great meeting place for those interested, a window onto the state of the art, and a place to set new directions for the future.
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or have the support of the British Government.
Open Up!, a conference hosted by the UK Government and Omidyar Network in association with Wired Magazine, will help governments use technology to open up and enable millions of citizens across the world to hold decision makers to account and change lives. Join in at www.openup12.org and #OpenUp12.