Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in the Developing Countries is a multi-country, multi-year study led by the World Wide Web Foundation to understand how data is being put to use in different countries and contexts across the developing world. According to the Open Data Network website, “these case studies examine initiatives, the governance challenges they propose to address, and emerging outcomes and impacts from the application of open data in these contexts. The project is also developing cross-cutting data collection instruments and analysis approaches to help explain if and how open data is bringing change to developing countries.” Together, these studies will help improve developmental outcomes of open data initiatives.
Types of Studies
The Open Aid Team at IPD analyzed 24 of the 26 studies included in the Emerging Impacts Project. The two unanalyzed projects were a Open Data Research Symposium and upcoming synthesis paper. Of the 24 studies, 7 utilized a mixed methodology approach, 13 utilized a qualitative approach, and 1 utilized a quantitative approach. The studies spanned research projects in 16 different countries.
There were several themes present across the analyzed studies. The findings are grouped into three categories: limited accessibility of the data concerns over social exclusion, and the lack of strong causal linkages between supply and impact.
Access to open data information remains an issue across the majority of research environment. Two roadblocks hinder achieving the ideal level of access to data. First, there is a lack of intermediaries between the suppliers of the data and those intended to be demanders. The second issue is that the current technology used to access open data is neither user friendly nor sensitive to low Internet connectivity. Several studies highlight the need to more effectively streamline data in order to achieve greater accessibility.
A handful of studies question the effectiveness of initiatives that are solely digital and are published and disseminated only in written form. These studies critique the reliance on digital capacities and digital mediums in order to use and access open data. By only tailoring the openness of data to an elite and literate portion of the population, will marginalized groups be further ostracized by their lack of access to pertinent information? Essentially, there is a need to move forward with caution. We risk further deepening the digital divide if we do not work to bridge this gap.
Several studies cited a difficulty to develop strong evidence of impact due to the early stage of development of the data itself within the respective contexts. For example, the studies within both Nepal and India alluded to the trouble of correlating supply and impact due to nascent open data systems. The studies focused on process and implementation measures as opposed to linking impact with supply.
Recommendations for Future Research
Based on our analysis of the Emerging Impact Project, we offer the following recommendations for future research on the use and uptake of open data.
Press for Innovative Evaluation Methods
One of the limitations to the current research undertaken in this subject is its inherent qualitative nature. Though the studies included in Emerging Impacts Project span from Brazil to Bangladesh, they are woven together by a qualitative approach that utilizes case studies and interviews. Typically, non-random, self-selected sample groups are chosen for such cases. Additionally, the majority of cases have an isolated focus of the use and uptake of data at the national level.
It is well understood that evaluation methodology for this type of subject matter is intricate, complex, and unknown. Scholars and stakeholders should continue to discuss how to evaluate open data initiatives while thinking strategically about what constitutes impact within a specific environment. Two questions must be asked. What type of impact is open data looking to bring about within a society? How can we begin to quantify or measure those impacts within an evaluation? This subject arena should continue to be explored in great detail. Though it has yet to be systematically executed, randomized control trials have potential to show that the provision of a specific type of open data to relevant stakeholders may change perceptions on issue prioritization or supplementary decisions. Yet in order to execute such a novel implementation of an RCT design, several looming issues must be addressed. Integral in the discussion are topics such as establishing a reputable control group, arriving at measurable indicators, and understanding how to measure spillover within a close-knit environment such as governmental agencies.
Focus More on the Data Supply Chain
Future research should place more focus on the role of intermediaries within the open data ecosystem. At this point in the data revolution, research on the supply side is well established. We now need to work on establishing intermediaries to link the supply of data to the use of data. The next stage of research should address methods for creating these intermediaries, determine which intermediaries are the most influential and successful, and explain why. It is crucial that the research better understands how to overcome the challenges to linking actors within the open data supply.
In addition to the need for intermediaries is a need to understand where the injection of open data systems fits within existing structures. When researching the use and uptake of open data, studies should concentrate on understanding the current decision making processes and under which conditions open data information is most relevant. Potential questions to ask include:
- Where within the decision making process is it most relevant for actors to consult newly available open data?
- How can the new systems build off of existing platforms to ensure greater use?
- Where within the decision making process should open data be placed to achieve optimal efficiency?
Though this research will be context and country-specific, it can serves as a valuable stepping-stone for unleashing the potential impact of open data systems.
Focus More on Building Capacity
A large portion of the open data use literature discusses the difficulties developing countries face in establishing, maintaining, and financing strong data ecosystems. A major barrier to unlocking the potential of open data will be changing current behavior and habits of the intended users of data. Research should focus on what is necessary to motivate data use as well as what motivates current data use. These lessons should then be applied across the board. Researchers must investigate the conditions and circumstances under which the uptake and use of data is most likely and explain why. In addition to modifying behavior, if countries do not have the institutional and infrastructural capacities, uptake of data will continue to trudge along. Countries must have both a strong technological bandwidth as well as a strong human bandwidth. Because the impact of open data is contingent upon these two strengths, attention should be given to building such capacities.
Discuss Strategic Action Plans and Feasibility
Current studies lack the necessary action plans needed to build and foster use of open data systems. Little focus has been placed on calculating cost benefit analyses for the recommendations of greater uptake. While it is important to understand what is needed to foster greater uptake and use of open data, it is equally important to understand the feasibility of such implementation measures. Studies undertaken in countries must not only note what should be done but what can be done. Research must take into account the political willingness and the resource capacities of the specific context at hand. It is crucial that an induction of feasibility and strategy accompany recommendations. Additionally, as major development partners such as the UN and the World Bank call for a data revolution, their development strategies and country development plans should embody a strong commitment to bolstering and funding these necessities.
Promotion of Mobile Technology for Data Collection
Another factor of importance to consider is the possibility of further mobile technology options for data collection and dissemination. Given the growing uptake of mobile devices in developing countries and their already high usage in many places, this remains a not fully tapped strength in the efforts for data transparency. As open data continues to be a growing field, gathering and distribution of relevant data through mobile phones via SMS messages, smartphone apps, call-in voice programs and other mechanisms could be the tool that will close the gap. Real-time data collection and dissemination of needed data on demand would significantly change the impact of any open data efforts.
Emerging Impacts of Open Data on Developing Countries is founded by the World Web Foundation and Open Data Research Network. The list of projects and research studies analyzed in this report can be found at http://www.opendataresearch.org/emergingimpacts.