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How Is Open Data Changing the World? Key Findings from Open Data Impact Case Studies

While there is no shortage of enthusiasm for open data’s potential, nor of conjectural estimates of its hypothetical impact, few rigorous, systematic analyses exist of its concrete, real-world impact. In the interest of addressing this important informational shortcoming, the GovLab and Omidyar Network collaborated on the development of 19 detailed case studies of open data projects from around the world.

The case studies and the key findings across the projects – “Open Data Impact: When Demand and Supply Meet” – are now available at Open Data’s Impact (odimpact.org). The case studies were chosen for their geographic and sectoral representativeness. They seek to go beyond the descriptive (what happened) to the explanatory (why it happened, and what is the wider relevance or impact).

In what follows we briefly share our key findings along the following dimensions:

  • Key dimensions of impact;
  • Key enabling conditions;
  • Key challenges.

DIMENSIONS OF IMPACT

Across geographies and sectors, we uncovered four ways open data is having an impact (positive or negative):

  • Improving Government: Open data is improving government, primarily by tackling corruption and increasing transparency, and enhancing public services and resource allocation. It has, for example, played a role in the exposing and reducing corruption in Mexican schools and improving the government procurement process in Slovakia.
  • Empowering Citizens: Open data is empowering citizens to take control of their lives and demand change by enabling more informed decision making and new forms of social mobilization, both in turn facilitated by new ways of communicating and accessing information. Opening access to government-held data is giving citizens the ability to make more-informed decisions about their health care in Uruguay and about their children’s schools in Tanzania. 
  • Creating Opportunity: Open data is creating new opportunities for citizens and organizations, by fostering innovation and promoting economic growth and job creation. This can take many forms, including the NOAA’s data enabling the creation of an entirely new weather industry to traditionally expensive market research information being made available to small businesses in New York City.
  • Solving Public Problems: Open data is playing an increasingly important role in solving big public problems, primarily by allowing citizens and policymakers access to new forms of data-driven assessment of the problems at hand. It also enables data-driven engagement, producing more targeted interventions and enhanced collaboration. From proving in court that water access decisions in a small Ohio town were racially discriminatory, to helping citizens in Singapore avoid dengue fever, to helping Christchurch, New Zealand recover from devastating earthquakes, open data is being mobilized to help address a broad diversity of public problems.

ENABLING CONDITIONS

In order to achieve the potential of open data and scale the impact of the individual projects discussed in our report, we need a better – and more granular – understanding of the enabling conditions that lead to success. We found 4 central conditions (“4Ps”) that play an important role in ensuring success:

  • Partnerships: Intermediaries and data collaboratives play an important role in ensuring success, allowing for enhanced matching of supply and demand of data.
  • Public infrastructure: Developing open data as a public infrastructure, open to all, enables wider participation, and a broader impact across issues and sectors.
  • Policies: Clear policies regarding open data, including those promoting regular assessments of open data projects, are also critical for success.
  • Problem definition: Open data initiatives that have a clear target or problem definition have more impact and are more likely to succeed than those with vaguely worded statements of intent or unclear reasons for existence.

CORE CHALLENGES

Finally, the success of a project is also determined by the obstacles and challenges it confronts. Our research uncovered 4 major challenges (“4Rs”) confronting open data initiatives across the globe:

  • Readiness: A lack of readiness or capacity (evident, for example, in low Internet penetration or technical literacy rates) can severely limit the impact of open data.
  • Responsiveness: Open data projects are significantly more likely to be successful when they remain agile and responsive—adapting, for instance, to user feedback or early indications of success and failure.
  • Risks: For all its potential, open data does pose certain risks, notably to privacy and security; a greater, more nuanced understanding of these risks will be necessary to address and mitigate them.
  • Resource Allocation: While open data projects can often be launched cheaply, those projects that receive generous, sustained and committed funding have a better chance of success over the medium and long term.

TOWARD A NEXT GENERATION OPEN DATA ROADMAP

The report concludes with ten recommendations for policymakers, advocates, users, funders and other stakeholders in the open data community. For each step, we include a few concrete methods of implementation – ways to translate the broader recommendation into meaningful impact.

 

Together, these 10 recommendations and their means of implementation amount to what we call a “Next Generation Open Data Roadmap.” This roadmap is just a start, and we plan to continue fleshing it out in the near future. For now, it offers a way forward. It is our hope that this roadmap will help guide future research and experimentation so that we can continue to better understand how the potential of open data can be fulfilled across geographies, sectors and demographics.

THE CASE STUDIES

The case studies available on Open Data’s Impact – 19 of which were developed by the GovLab, with independent researcher Becky Hogge contributing six UK-based stories – include:

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