Taking stock of open data

Conversations with Data: #63

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Using publicly available data to tell stories is becoming more and more important for journalists today. But finding open data in the first place can be a challenge given not all countries share national data in an accessible way.

In this episode of the Conversations with Data podcast, we caught up with Shaida Badiee from Open Data Watch, an NGO focused on monitoring and promoting open data in national statistical offices. As the co-founder and managing director of the organisation, she tells us about its newly released Open Data Inventory -- an annual index assessing the health and openness of national statistical data across 187 countries.

You can listen to our entire podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Shaida Badiee below.

What we asked

Tell us about yourself and your work at Open Data Watch.

I'm the co-founder and managing director of Open Data Watch, an international NGO working to support and persuade countries and agencies to do better at making data more open and accessible. Our focus is on data that is needed to guide and monitor sustainable development. We have been in operation since 2014.

I started working on data several decades before in 1977 when I joined the World Bank to help with economic and financial data management for a programme that later became the World Development Report (WDR). I started as a summer temp and I grew in that job as I found my passion for data. In 1995, I led a large change management project which created the development data group of the World Bank. I took over that work and ran that department. I left in 2013 when I actually maxed out on the number of years that I could be at the World Bank.

After 36 years at the World Bank, what persuaded you not to retire?

In 2010, I had an exceptional opportunity to manage the World Bank's open data project, which was initiated by the president of the bank at that time, Bob Zoellick. Since then, the usage of data has skyrocketed overnight. It's set an example for other agencies and countries to follow, too. I learnt a lot from helping the bank to open its data and saw first-hand the complexities it faced. It will take a while before countries and agencies around the world could do the same. That's why I decided to start up Open Data Watch as an independent NGO to monitor progress on open data and support countries through this transformation and realise the benefits of open data.

Shaida Badiee

Shaida Badiee is managing director of Open Data Watch. She has been an active member of the UN Secretary General’s advisory group on data revolution. She co-chairs the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and has played a key role in the startup of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

Tell us about your organisation's 2020 Open Data Inventory.

Open Data Inventory (ODIN) is an evaluation of two aspects of data coverage and openness of data, which is provided by the national statistical offices on their website. The inventory collects tons of data used to build a profile of open data in each country. This is used as input to also calculate the score. Often countries data are from a score of one to 100 for the coverage. ODIN includes 22 data categories grouped under social, economic, financial and environmental data. Openness is measured against international standards. It is based on open data for national statistical offices, where users see how countries are doing and how they compare with others, and what needs to change for them to be to do better. This is our fourth round of ODIN this year and we are covering 187 countries.

Why does the world need to take stock of open data?

Open data directly brings a lot of value -- social and economic value on its own to help governments with their daily work and daily decisions. It helps citizens to know what the state of their lives are and assist with international development and research. So just tracking how countries are doing on open data is really important. It is also essential to understand who is left behind and what are the good practises. Open data also indirectly tells us a lot about some of the prerequisites, for example, transparency, accountability, good data governance, and data stewardship. So when you track open data, it also gives you a view of many good practises that countries should show that they have adopted and keep improving over time. And that's what we're trying to do with ODIN.

Talk to us about the results from this year's Open Data Inventory. Did you come across any surprising findings?

Open data for official statistics are on the rise. About 75 percent of countries have increased their score. So that's really wonderful news to hear. And the other surprise is that the top performers used to be all high-income countries. But we see that they are diversifying. The top list now has countries like Palestine and the United Arab Emirates. In this year's index, Mongolia and Slovakia now arrived in the top 10 countries in the world. This is a first for both countries.

Another surprise is that countries in Africa and the Pacific Islands made the most significant improvements. We also see that the openness score is still a challenge for many low-income countries where they need much more technical and financial support to increase their capacity. Everyone is welcome to visit the ODIN website to view the results and send us comments, criticisms. We want to hear all feedback.

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The Open Data Inventory (ODIN) measures how complete a country’s statistical offerings are and whether their data meet international standards of openness. Visit Odin.OpenDataWatch.com for more.

From Open Data Watch's perspective, does a strong culture of open data have any connection with a country's ability to report on COVID-19 data?

Well, we still have to do more research on this for hard evidence. But from what we see right now, from the latest ODIN results and comparing the openness score with the countries reporting COVID-19 data, we do see that there is a relationship there. Logically, when you have a good open data practise that means that you have your house in order, that you have procedures in place for data dissemination, you have sorted out your legal and technical issues. So when it comes to emergencies as we have with COVID-19, then you can use those competencies and resources. But when the system is weak, then it's much harder to publish and disseminate data in time for decision-makers.

Finally, what's one or two misconceptions about open data you come across and wish to clear up?

"Open by default" is often misunderstood as everything must become open and countries get really nervous when they hear that. However, that's not what it's about. "Open by default" is about countries having a negative list of what data sets, for reasons of privacy, security or data quality issues are not to be made open, which implies that everything else should be open by default. Countries should not resist and actually embrace it.

The other misconception is that open data is just for rich countries. And we just saw from the 2020 ODIN results that that is not true. Countries in lower-income countries are making very good progress. And the last misconception I often come across is that people think open data is a project that they can just get to. But data is a continuous process. It is a process of modernisation of systems and meeting the needs and demands and adapting and adjusting and modernising with technology, with new findings.

Don't miss our latest long reads on DataJournalism.com

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Our next conversation

In the next episode of our Conversations with Data podcast, we will speak with Professor Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and Director of The Vaccine Confidence Project. She will speak to us about misinformation and vaccines in light of the latest COVID-19 vaccine news. She will also talk to us about her new book, "Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start -- and Why They Don't Go Away".

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As always, don’t forget to let us know what you’d like us to feature in our future editions. You can also read all of our past editions here.


Tara from the EJC Data team,

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