A remarkable new tool is becoming increasingly available to help end extreme poverty and ensure dignity and opportunity for people around the world—a tool that few people think about when they consider how to bolster international development efforts. That tool is data, and in particular “open data“—data freely available in formats that are easy to use in new and innovative ways, while rigorously protecting privacy.
The possibilities are truly endless—it could be regional epidemiological statistics being made available to community health workers; or real-time weather information being made available to small-holder farmers; or loan information being made accessible to first-time borrowers. In these and countless other arenas, open data has the potential to not only improve transparency and coordination, but also dramatically accelerate progress in development.
In order to explore new ways of leveragingopen data for development and to help strengthen our commitment to open data with others inside and outside of government, we joined with colleagues from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on December 10 for a DataJam at the White House.
This unprecedented event brought world-class innovators and entrepreneurs together with U.S. government leaders and decision-makers to discuss the impact that open development data has already had on strengthening entrepreneurship in the United States and in developing countries—and the additional impact that can be had going forward. We also brainstormed about new partnerships we could form to facilitate the opening of new pockets of data that many of us deal with in our work every day and that have potential added value across the development domain. For USAID, this effort reflects our increasing focus on throwing open the doors of development to problem-solvers everywhere.
The Datajam showcased some of the groundbreaking work that innovators and entrepreneurs have accomplished with open data in the development sphere—from tracking election transparency in Kenya with the non-profit Ushahidi; to the State Department’s Tech@State and TechCamp conference and workshop platforms that bring in-country technologists and entrepreneurs together to solve local—and global—problems; to the exciting announcement that FEWSnet, USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network, is launching a competition to analyze USAID data to better inform and improve our own decision-making. As Presidential Innovation Fellow Dmitry Kachaev, explained, “Technology is not the hard part. The hard part is getting the information.”
That’s where we all come in, and that’s why we are issuing a call to action for open data. There are data sets and information resources across the government that could serve a greater good and be effective tools for change if they were made more accessible and usable, while ensuring that privacy and confidentiality are always rigorously protected. We want to collect these data—these potential change agents—and present them in their most creative and effective forms. We want to engage students and volunteers to help us clean and organize the data to make this information accessible and useful, just as USAID’s Development Credit Authority did with its crowdsourcing project to clean up and map loan data records. We want these same data to be available to entrepreneurs and innovators who are building new organizations and creating local and lasting change.
Although we often talk about our business-like focus on data and the importance of delivering concrete results, the reality is that the open data movement has been inspired not only by analytical logic but also in large part by a shared passion to help change the world. When you apply your vision and expertise to this task—when you add to the growing stores of data for use in new and creative ways—you are helping an infant take its first easy breath and live to celebrate her fifth birthday. You are helping farmers grow more nutritious foods, fostering healthy families and prosperous communities. You are helping end the enduring outrage of human trafficking. This is the power of open data.
We’re excited and think you should be too.
Watch a video of the Datajam event.
Visit our website for more information about open data and learn more about the Presidential Innovation Fellows.
Rajiv Shah is the Administrator of USAID.
Todd Park is Assistant to the President and U.S. Chief Technology Officer.