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Open Access to Development Data: The World Bank’s New Open Data Initiative

Guest blog by Meghan Reidy and Marco Schäferhoff, Evidence to Policy Initiative (E2Pi), San Francisco, USA.  Also posted on the PLoS Medicine blog, SpeakingofMedicine

The World Bank announced this week a new open data initiative, which provides free and open access to the Bank’s health and development data, including 2,000 social, economic, financial, institutional, and environmental indicators. The World Development Indicators, the Bank’s most popular statistical resource, consist of over 900 indicators for 200 countries alone, including many that go back to 1960. The Bank has also opened up access to the Global Development Finance, Africa Development Indicators, Global Economic Monitor, and indicators from the Doing Business Report.

This step is long overdue. Opening access to the Bank’s data is good news for everyone who is interested in global health and development and wants to get a quick overview of the latest trends or access the data for policy-making, research, and advocacy purposes. Until this week, only a fraction of this data was freely available, making it difficult for interested individuals and organizations to use it. Individuals and organizations in emerging markets and developing countries in particular are often unable to pay subscription fees to access development data – even when discounts are available for developing country residents.

Accessing high quality data should play a critical role in improving accountability and in helping to overcome poverty. It will allow policy makers, researchers, and civil society organizations to track the impact of policies, develop new solutions, and measure the progress of development more accurately. Development data should be transparent and available to everyone around the globe.

The new initiative is truly open access (not just free access) because users are allowed to work with the data to create new applications.  Indeed the Bank is encouraging such creative reuse—it will soon launch an “Apps for Development” competition, to prompt the health and development community to create applications and “mash-ups” using World Bank data.

The World Bank’s open data initiative will be followed by the July 1 launch of the Bank’s new Access to Information Policy, which provides access to an expanded range of reports, documents, and information. This step is welcome, as it will strengthen public ownership and oversight of Bank activities. If implemented as outlined in the policy document, for the first time the Bank will release information on projects under implementation—also a long overdue measure. The Bank will publish important information contained in a series of reports called “Implementation Status and Results Reports,” including information about the status of project implementation and overall ratings on project development objectives and implementation progress. However, staff comments and detailed risk ratings will be withheld. Reports from review missions, known as aide mémoires, which comment on the progress of projects and provide recommendations on further actions, can be released if both the Bank and borrower agree. Given that the aide mémoires entail critical information, their open disclosure should be standard practice. Others have discussed the gaps and limitations of the policy in more detail.

Nonetheless, despite these limitations, if fully implemented, the new policy will bring the World Bank a long way in moving towards the standard of transparency set by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Since its inception, the Global Fund has displayed a high level of transparency and publishes a range of information on grant performance, financing, and Board decisions on its website, though there remains room for improvement. This information is provided by the Global Fund in a systematic way, and it is relatively simple to access and read. It is important that the World Bank follows the Global Fund’s example.

Finally, we note that both the World Bank and the Global Fund were signatories to a recent PLoS Medicine essay called “Meeting the Demand for Results and Accountability: A Call for Action on Health Data from Eight Global Health Agencies.” In that essay, the leaders of eight major global health agencies (the “H8”) made “a public commitment on behalf of each of our organizations to work with other stakeholders to develop a set of specific principles around data sharing by our organizations within two years.” We hope they will live up to this promise.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Gavin Yamey, E2Pi, for helpful comments on this blog.

Competing interest: E2Pi is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The Global Health Group is directed by Richard Feachem, founding Executive Director of the Global Fund and former Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank.

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