Information silos vs. open data in development organizations

30.06.2009| Christian Kreutz

Accurate data is key for development work. Opening data sources can enhance transparency and improve collaboration between development projects. Surprisingly, development organizations show few signs of opening up data to create new channels to link information across organizations.

The age of the typewriter: Data exchange in developing organizations

Information exchange is a major activity between development organizations, but unfortunately it is still done manually – typing up data from different sources or, even more advanced, copying figures from an Excel sheet to a Word document. Such is the case of reports, where a great amount of information is gathered. These reports have valuable and high-quality content, but they need huge efforts to be done and time tends to be lost between writing and publishing. This is just one example of how in many cases data is exchanged or used. Each time the wheel is reinvented.

Simulating a project content in real-time

A website can be a report simulated in real-time, which combines data sources across organizations and research institutions. On it, you cannot only see the latest status, but also the latest developments and updates seen from different perspectives depending on various indicators. So, in a health project, a survey taken with nurses from one region is fitted into the system, as well as new results from a scientific research about the latest drop rate of vaccinations. All project actors involved contribute to a common database for better transparency, real-time reporting and potentially better decision-making.

Is that all future music? No.

  • Also, you can check my post on open API at the web2fordev gateway with the example of the world bank. A key role can be played by open API (Application Programming Interfaces). A good example is the API of the World Bank, where you can access 114 indicators from key data sources and 12,000 development photos. But of course photos can only be the beginning. Project data is way more important to enable different actors in the same field to benefit from data.
  • An Open development camp is taking place in July in Washington. "There are a number of emerging activities focusing on improving the transparency of aid and allowing organizations, projects, researchers, practitioners, and clients in developing countries to have improved access to aid information, data on outcomes, knowledge, and tools.  We are getting closer to the day when anyone can easily determine who is doing what, where they are doing it, what they have learned, and who is funding them."
  • Check out with extensive data from the USA government or the projects of the sunlight foundation.

What is hindering an opening?

  • Focus on proprietary closed software environments, which have just discovered open standards. The Sharepoint invasion, thanks to many IT departments, underlines this one way road.
  • Internal websites from development organizations are focused on top-down communication. The Intranet represents information silos, where little data is combined.
  • There are many playing fields from different departments using all kinds of solutions with little focus on interoperability. Many databases with different standards are often incompatible to work together.
  • Development organizations focus more on securing confidential information than looking at the majority of data, which can be offered publicly.
  • The disappointment after the hype of the 90's where information management was a great solution. But things have changed during the last few years in terms of open standards, mashups and API's.

Consequence: There are huge amounts of valuable data which has been little exploited. Data cannot be exchanged between development organizations and each organization collects its own data and reinvents the data wheel over and over again.

Surely, data alone does not make a project or an organization succeed and does not guarantee transparency. But open data could improve project work and planning a lot. It can certainly improve aid effectiveness. In older times, databases were often difficult to deal with and offered little output. Nowadays, potential for mashing data are different. A first step to take can be easy: Persistently work on offering data openly and work with simple common standards such as RSS. Sometimes it just needs one person: UN Democracy is an effort to give better access for UN Security council data.