Governments must get behind Open Data to achieve the SDGs

José M. Alonso, Program Manager Open Data, on why open data must be part of the conversation at the Third International Conference on Financing for Development this week

As governments come together in Addis Ababa to finalise how the new global goals for sustainable development (SDGs) will be funded, we shouldn’t forget that in order to make sure this funding is achieving its desired impact, we need to be able to measure outcomes.

There are three key measurement challenges:

  1. We do not have enough reliable data to measure progress across the 17 SDGs. And we won’t be able to raise enough financing at this conference or have enough time to build the traditional national and local statistical capacity to do so.
  2. We need to determine how we can take advantage of opening up official data as well as new user-generated and private sector data sources to help us make some headway in plugging the development data gap.
  3. The majority of development data we have is not yet freely available in open, reusable formats, so we will not be able to truly gauge progress on the way to the 2030 SDG deadline.

The current draft outcome of the Financing for Development Conference acknowledges the need to build countries’ capacity to collect reliable data, and the value in making this data open: “We recognize that greater transparency is essential, and can be achieved by publishing timely, comprehensive and forward-looking information on development activities in a common, open, electronic format”. Governments must go beyond simply recognising the importance of open data for transparency and commit to it in practice.

On paper, a number of governments have acknowledged the value of open data to address development challenges and many have agreed to make data available in readily usable formats. But in practice, as the most recent Open Data Barometer shows, this has not been backed by action or adequate funding to make it a reality.

For example, of the 80+ countries included in the Open Data Barometer, only 8% publish data on government spending. Availability of data to monitor development objectives for critical public services is equally hard to come by: just 7% of countries release open data on the performance of health services, and 12% provide corresponding figures on education.

In fact, we have even seen policy backslide in some countries. In Tanzania, years of progress on transparency and openness are threatened by the “Statistics Bill”, which makes it illegal to publish “misleading” statistics or data. These laws seem be driven by a “fear of the unknown”, and we would encourage governments to invest more time in understanding the benefits of open data and the cultural shift required to harness its power.

Gone are the days when policy-making and negotiation happened behind closed doors and governments could control the flow of information via the evening news. No amount of panic legislation can change the fundamental technological shift we’ve experienced. To make progress on the ambitious SDG agenda, governments must evolve and embrace openness. This is true whether you are referring to the publication of local crime rates or citizens’ ability to tweet directly at their officials.

That’s why we urge governments and donor organisations to commit to greater transparency and channel more funding towards open data as a way to both achieve and monitor progress towards the SDGs. The outcome of the Financing for Development Conference should read: Greater transparency is essential. We commit to publishing all publicly-funded datasets, and other timely, comprehensive and forward-looking information on development activities, in a common, open, electronic format licensed for free use and reuse.

When governments commit to making sure all of their data is open by default, civil society, citizens, the private sector, and multilateral organisations can analyse, re-use and build on this data. Government departments will even gain a greater understanding of what other parts of local and national government are doing, encouraging them to share experiences of what works and what doesn’t.

For example, during the Nigerian elections in March, local NGO BudgIT used open data on the country’s budget to produce detailed infographics on topics like Nigeria’s security budget, the impact of oil price falls on the economy, and a breakdown of election candidate information. With rising social media usage, BudgIT was able to help inform voters’ decisions in a country where the problems of corruption and a lack of transparency are particularly pronounced.

In Jakarta, our Open Data Lab worked with government and civil society to develop concrete measures for school performance in the city of Banda Aceh. Upon analysing the data, participants saw that some local schools performed worse than others despite receiving more government resources. They also found that some schools were hardly utilising a special fund to improve infrastructure. Opening up the data made space for an informed dialogue between the city‘s education agency and citizens, allowing them to jointly find solutions to improve the performance of weaker schools.

These examples of using open data to both increase accountability and monitor progress illustrate why is it so important that governments take their open data commitments seriously and ensure that development data is open data. This means putting agreements like the African Data Consensus — agreed by all African ministers of finance, economic development, integration and planning — into effect as quickly as possible.

At the Web Foundation, we are committed to exploring the possibilities offered by open data as a tool to build accountable and inclusive institutions that deliver results for citizens. We do this through research and evidence-based advocacy through the Open Data Research Network, and invite you to take a look at some of our projects.

The UN has proclaimed 2015 as the year of the Data Revolution. There is no better time than now and no better cause than the SDGs to turn that vision into a global reality.

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