Open data and (15 million!) new measures of democracy
Last month the University of Gothenberg’s V-Dem Institute released a new “Varieties of Democracy” dataset. It provides about 15 million data points on democracy, including 39 democracy-related indices. It can be accessed at v-dem.net along with supporting documentation. I asked Staffan I. Lindberg, Director of the V-Dem Institute and one of the directors of the project, a few questions about the new data. What follows is a lightly edited version of his answers.
Joshua Tucker: What is democracy, and is it even really to have quantitative measures on democracy?
Staffan Linderg: There is no consensus on the definition of democracy and how to measure it. The understanding of what a democracy really is varies across countries and regions. This motivates the V-Dem approach not to offer one standard definition of the concept but instead to distinguish among five principles different versions of democracy: Electoral, Liberal, Participatory, Deliberative, and Egalitarian democracy. All of these principles have played prominent roles in current and historical discussions about democracy. Our measurement of these principles are based on two types of data, factual data collected by assisting researchers and survey responses by country experts, which are combined using a rather complex measurement model (which is a “custom-designed Bayesian ordinal item response theory model”, for details see the V-Dem Methodology document).
JT: Can you describe this new database? What is it?
SL: Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) represents a novel approach to measuring democracy. It is based on collaboration among leading scholars across the world and has two institutional homes: the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which also functions as the operational headquarters for the project’s many parts, and the University of Notre Dame in the United States. V-Dem differs from previous datasets by distinguishing among different principles of democracy (as discussed) and offering about 350 unique democracy indicators, 34 indices of various aspects of democracy such as freedom of association, and five main democracy indices for Electoral, Liberal, Participatory, Deliberative, and Egalitarian democracy. These all cover 173 countries, measured annually from 1900 to 2012.
Our approach is also unique in that half of her indicators measures what is normally “unobservables” and each country-year of these are coded by multiple (typically five) independent country experts. In total we have engaged some 2,600 of them from over 170 countries. The aim is to measure democracy data with global standards based on local knowledge.
On Jan. 4 we released our first complete dataset, with more than 15 million data points. The data release marked a milestone for the study of democracy in the world. It is the largest database on democracy of its kind, enabling what we anticipate will be a vast research agenda. V-Dem’s multidimensional and disaggregated approach acknowledges the complexity of the concept of democracy. This allows for a highly detailed and nuanced analysis of democracy in a single country while also allowing for summary comparisons between countries.
On March 31, we will release the first update of the data. This new version will include data for 2013-2014 covering 115 countries, and for 60 countries also 2015. Going forward, we hope to be able to attract funding so we can update the dataset every year for 185 countries eventually.
JT: How can people use this database?
SL: Scholars, students, media, policy analysts, practitioners, and others interested in the status of democracy in the world can visit our website, where they can use the online analysis tools to generate graphs showing a country’s regime trajectory and comparisons with other countries (JT: see the figure at the start of this post for an example).
One can also download the complete dataset, along with the documentation, and use it to carry out analyses of topics related to democracy and governance. This includes possible sequences of democratization, the causes of democracy, and its possible effects. Besides scholarly work, we also hope that the data and the empirical analyses will be a useful resource for policy-makers and practitioners as they assess polities and craft programs to enhance democracy and governance.
All data, supporting documentation, working paper series, briefs, information about the team, and online tools for analysis are found on .