What is Open Data and why is it Important for Development?

By LEAD Research Team

According to the Open Data Handbook Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike. One particular category of Open Data is called Open Government Data (OGD). It refers to “data and information produced or commissioned by government or government controlled entities, which can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone”.

In 2005, India also enacted the Right of Information (RTI) Act which “mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information”. In 2012 GoI went one step further towards active dissemination of government data by adopting The National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP). Following NDSAP’s inauguration, the OGD data portal “data.gov.in” was launched later that same year. Today the official OGD platform gathers 15,121 datasets in 3,593 catalogues by 88 public departments.

Economically speaking, more and more reports insist on the potential of Open Data. In a study published in 2013, McKinsey Global Institute assumes that Open Data could have an important economic impact on societies. They announced an estimated figure of $3 trillion in annual economic potential that could be unlocked across seven domains: education, transportation, consumer products, electricity, oil and gas, health care, and consumer finance

Urgent Need for Open Data

In terms of development goals, the input of better data collection and more open data dissemination could be tremendous. The World Bank made a clear statement: the limited availability of data on poverty and inequality poses major challenges to the monitoring of the World Bank main goals: ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity[1].

According to a recently completed study[2], for nearly one hundred countries at most two poverty estimates are available over the past decade. Even worse is that, for around half of them there was either one or no poverty estimate available. There are so many unregistered births and deaths in developing countries; this represents a massive challenge to plan public policies for governments and projects and priorities for international organizations.

The international community focusing on Open Data is taking more and more into account the specific role that Open Data could have for developing countries and the particular challenges that come along with the characteristics of these countries (e.g. in training needs, labor force, capacities issues, specific incentives, etc.).

Is there any impact yet?

After years of focusing its efforts on the release of data and on initiating a worldwide movement towards it, the international community is now focusing on measuring potential impact of Open Data and setting up standards and indicators to do so.

The 3rd International Open Data Conference organized in Ottawa on May 28th & 29th, 2015 dealt with those questions extensively. The main facts highlighted were:

(i) There is no unique model of Open Data: even in developing countries there are lots of disparities in the Open Data framework and it is hard to set up measurement standards or common strategies;

(ii) In any country and even more in developing countries, openness of data does not guaranty an impact: data needs to be used and has to reach the targeted end-users: farmers, researchers, each citizen etc. ;

(iii) On many occasions the top-down approach traditionally used in developed countries is not the best strategy to apply in the developing world. There is the necessity to assess the lack of access and use in several dimensions: the technology gap, the need to value more accurately the time of people living in developing countries, training needs to be defined, metadata information to provide, etc.

What about Open Data and research?

Publication of data would help avoid redundancy and therefore waste of resources. The publication of data following best practices and Open Data standards will help to attenuate to a large extent duplication of activities like cleaning datasets, compiling, merging, formatting, etc. Thus, Open Data allows for a better allocation of research resources, which are often scarce.

Open Data initiatives, by making secondary data available, could play a significant role in enriching the existing knowledge base at a negligible cost. There is a large literature showing that research findings lead to better policy-making and then to better governance. Open Data, by allowing more subjects to be studied and better allocation of research resources could have an important influence on research activities and eventually on public policies and development.


IFMR LEAD was invited at the Open Data Research Symposium organized alongside the Conference to present a research study focusing on Open Government Data in India and the relationship with socio-economic researchers.

Both faculty members and PhD candidates were contacted (through direct emails (274) and through the administrative division of their University). We also shared this survey with 137researchers and PhD students based abroad with a track record of studies on socio-economic subjects in India, based in 71 top ranking universities and schools. We collected 71 answers, including 70 fully completed questionnaires.

The study shows that only 57% of the researchers surveyed declared knowing what OGD is, while a definition was provided in the survey introduction to briefly introduce them to Open Data. Among those who responded positively to this question, 25% and 38% consider that they have a low or average understanding of OGD respectively, with only 32% assessing their knowledge as satisfactory and a small 6% judging it extensive.

Regarding the use of OGD in their research, their concerns are:

(i)  Poor or low dissemination: low volume of datasets published by the public authorities compared to the amount of data collected;

(ii)  Many key data for socio- economic research listed on portals but fee-paying accessibility only;

(iii) Format of the OGD publication and dissemination unanimously criticized: not consistent across datasets and sometimes across years, not published in researcher-friendly format;

(iv) Concern about the delayed release of data by public authorities;

(v) Lack of good quality or even total absence of metadata associated with OGD; Absence of troubleshooting tools and the lack of helpdesk features on OGD portals.

Open Data: a priority for development, a priority for all

If efforts to measure Open Data effects are extremely valuable, a lot remains to be done in most of the developing world to reach the stage were effects can be observed. However evidence and examples of the Open Data effects are truely valuable, like so many incentives for developing countries to embrace the Open Data movement. Indeed there is still a lot that remains to be done for developing countries to effectively leverage the outcomes of Open Data.
To ensure Open Data gets embraced by various sectors, the strategies must take into consideration the incentives and benefits of a diverse set of stakeholders, including public institutions and private sector.


[1] Revolutionizing Data Collection: From “Big Data” to “All Data” by Nobuo Yoshida; Open Data World Bank Blog Much of the world is deprived of poverty data. Let’s fix this by Umar Serajuddi.
[2] “Monitoring Poverty and Shared Prosperity: Data in Developing Countries,” Hiroki Uematsu, Serajuddin, Umar, Christina Wieser, and Nobuo Yoshida. (2014) mimeo, World Bank.