Why is open access to research and other data important?
Every year institutions, researchers and practitioners generate thousands of datasets, reports and articles about development issues. Yet much of this knowledge remains underused, locked away in silos. I am particularly interested in open data. Two of my expert colleagues, Tim Davies from the University of Southampton and Duncan Edwards from the UK Institute of Development Studies, believe that open data means not only publishing data freely but allowing reuse and putting it online as linked data to create a web of connected datasets.
Open data on the web makes it possible to take information on research from many sources, for example, and generate ‘mash-ups’, which make it available in different places, on different platforms, and in ways that support action and impact. Open data can be remixed to answer key questions in ways that were not possible before.
Does opening access to research have special importance for the development sector?
I think we are on the edge of a quite dizzying range of possibilities for doing development differently if we think imaginatively about how we might connect islands of data. I’ve written elsewhere about a scenario, for example, where data already collected in northern Kenya for the Hunger Safety Net Programme could act as a trigger for extension workers in northern Kenya, providing them with alerts via mobile phones of new research findings for families whose livelihoods depend on camel herding (providing, of course, that the suppliers of data first need to give permission for it to be shared across government departments).
Who is at the forefront of the effort to open up data?
The World Wide Web Foundation, started by Tim Berners-Lee (who invented the WWW) is a central organising node. The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank were early pioneers, and there is a growing band of organisations that focus on open aid data such as OpenAid and Publish What You Fund.
The rapidly growing government portal, Kenya Open Date portal, is a great example of an initiative in a developing country that is acting as a trigger for local innovation and experiments in how government data could be used to increase transparency and accountability. The project to watch is called Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries, a multi-country, multi-year study funded by IDRC to understand how open data is being used in different countries and contexts across the developing world.
What are some examples of ongoing open data initiatives?
First of all, it’s important to have a sense of the scale of the resources that could be made available. The Department for International Development (DfID) in the United Kingdom, for example, funds £200 million worth of research every year. Yet much of this knowledge remains locked away in online repositories such as DfID’s own R4D database and IDS’ ELDIS. That’s why IDS and CABI are collaborating on a project to open up the research data through open APIs and a collaboration with iHub Research in Nairobi to develop prototype mobile applications that might be used to exploit data on agriculture and nutrition, and connect people and share knowledge.
Open Nepal is another example of an initiative that is exploiting the levelling effect of globally available open data. Open Nepal is the latest in a series of recent initiatives from a group of organisations including Freedom Forum, the NGO Federation of Nepal, YoungInnovations and the aidinfo programme. Open Nepal focuses on catalysing and supporting an ecosystem around transparency and access to Information.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Bibhusan Bista from YoungInnovations, a startup that was involved in an early Nepal country study by aidinfo.org. The success of YoungInnovations’ recent Hackathon, organised to coincide with a worldwide series of hackathons, and described here in an aidinfo blog, is an indicator of how the scene has been developing since then. Developers experimented with data exposed on Open Nepal, producing simple but effective applications that addressed hot local issues, such as the app that compared fuel prices in India and Nepal.
I keep hearing about hackathons. What exactly is a hackathon?
A ‘hackathon’ (also known as a hackfest or hack day) is an event in which computer programmers join forces with a number of other experts, such as designers, investors and project managers, and spend a short intense period together to develop technical ideas and solutions. An example I was involved in this year is the Research to Impact Hackathon, held at the Nairobi iHub in January 2013, part of the CABI/IDS/iHub research project mentioned earlier. It focused on research data related to agriculture and nutrition from R4D, ELDIS and other relevant sources, including those from Kenya such as KAINET.
We brought together experts in the subject matter and technical developers to explore and create innovative prototypes, and increase the use and impact of research in development. iHub Research led the event and are managing the follow-up – which is unusual in hackathons. Funds were available to support winning entrants in taking their ideas further and developing working models. More information is available on the Euforic Services wiki, which we used to support the event. CTA is organising a hackathon focused on youth at the ICT4Ag conference in Rwanda later this year.
Pete Cranston is an ICT, communication and new media specialist, with long experience as a facilitator and trainer. For the past 14 years he has worked mainly in international development. His most recent research has been into global social media trends, with special reference to health communications, and the impact of convergent mobile technologies in rural development. Advising and training in web 2.0 technologies and interactive media, at both strategic and practical application levels, has taken up an increasing proportion of his work in the past three years.