It has been a pleasure working on “open data” at the World Bank the past four years. Open data brought together many of my professional and personal interests including data, technology, transparency, citizen engagement, social good, and innovation. In fact, despite experiencing both boundless potential and disappointing limitations, I am even more passionate about both “open” and “data” today as I was in 2011. Despite my bullish feelings, there are some lessons that I’ve learned along the way and ideas that I feel the industry and its diverse set of stakeholders must embrace in order to make good on the lofty (but still reachable!) promises of the “open” movement. Clear eyes are a great complement to a full heart. So here they are.
Go Deep & Wide (but in that order)
Like most concepts that heavily rely on digital technology and dissemination, the opportunity to scale broadly from inception is extremely enticing. Understandably, this allure is hard to ignore for the most ambitious among us. I also understand that choosing just one approach represents a false choice. It is of course optimal and possible to select both. I am just advocating here for a bit more initial focus on operationally-relevant “deep” activities versus a more symbolic “wide” opportunity. This could mean applying open data principles to a specific project rather than an entire global portfolio of activities. Deep could also mean going as local and granular as possible. This approach forces you to think about specific pain-points and address problems that open data can help resolve versus just selling broad long-term goals.
If you show success by demonstrating meaningful results in a deeper scenario, ideas and concepts will also scale naturally. It is just not advisable to start building a house from the roof-down. Can it be done? Yes, because nothing is impossible. Do you really want to do that though? If so, do you really have the time and resources?
Open Data + Open Process = Open Decision
Providing people raw data and information is great, but when coupled with decision-making criteria and the decisions themselves, it is an extremely powerful combination. As an example, I have long been impressed by the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s leadership in this area- see transparency around its Country Selection Process. The startup Buffer is also a great example of what real internal transparency looks like- see Open Salaries: Our Transparent Formula. I don’t think most organizations or people are ready for transparency like Buffer, but we could all certainly stand to apply a few more doses. Sharing data and knowledge is a great start. Sharing decision-making power is a revolutionary act.
Walking the Talk
Transparency’s power can only be fully captured if wielded as a double-edged sword. Understandably and naturally, the idea of opening someone else’s data is typically far more appealing than opening your own. Many transparency groups and civil society organizations that advocate for transparency balk at applying the same principles they are calling for; this seems like a flawed approach. Nothing strengthens a moral position quite like talking and walking the talk. Additionally, this also strengthens the advocate’s case by offering more personal insight into the specific pain points of transparency and solutions to alleviate them.
Data’s worth and value should stem from its utility and ultimately use. We simply cannot ignore the fact that globally, 3 in 5 people do not have access to the internet in 2014. While this number is rapidly rising thanks to mobile technology, we must be realistic about the nature and impact of internet-based interventions in light of our target audiences. In the current environment, open data should be nested alongside broader digital literacy and capacity building activities. While this applies primarily to the developing world, even in Europe and the United States roughly 1 in 4 adults are offline. That is a lot of people without direct access to all the civic and social goodness being offered. Not everyone will be a power user of your data and there are of course other intermediaries that can help deliver information, but inclusiveness should be an unwavering priority.
Clearly, this is not a simple problem. I often re-visit and struggle with Emily Badger’s piece How the Internet Reinforces Inequality in the Real World, and I believe addressing, accounting, and minimizing this dynamic has great significance and implications not just for open data but for our entire world.
In closing, most of all I have appreciated the way open data has brought together many diverse perspectives and backgrounds. It is a community and a family that I hold dear.
Information, data, and knowledge want to be free, and I am glad to have had a small part in this revolutionary act.
So what exactly am I doing here? What do I hope to accomplish with this site and newly re-minted digital presence?
There is something about this venture that reminds me of my very first experiences of the web- namely, the fun of setting up my own personal site (Geocities, baby!) back in 1995. Even in those early days, it was really hard to land prime web real estate or monikers with a common name like “Sam Lee.” But yet, the experience still felt rather unique- akin to imprinting your hand on the sands of a digital beach for the first time. Wild explorations of blinking lights, crazy fonts, and cheesy designs aside- that feeling of discovery and exploration of new space was intoxicating. Not to keep waxing poetic, but those of us on the web at that stage were pioneers. There were no true rules or conventions to follow- just space.
To put things in perspective, the concept of a blog wasn’t even all that cemented back during my first go-round with web development. I remember having to hack solutions for the most basic functions (i.e. cobbling together a discussion board for comments, setting up a chat room, etc). Beyond the technical, many of my friends also ribbed and mocked me for posting my thoughts online and inviting discussion. These types of activities would of course become more socially acceptable over time, and online community tools and sites (like IRC, ICQ, AOL, AsianAvenue, Friendster, Xanga, etc) shortly followed.
Each community and platform was unique; while many did not last, the interactions they fostered were real. And no matter how many online communities rise and shutter their walls, I will continue to try and embrace them all. Why? Each experience shapes the way I interact with other digital citizens and the world- and dare I say, influences my life.
But sometime in 2003 I just completely lost the desire to maintain my own site; over the last ten years, I have merely sprinkled digital content all over the place (blogs, social networks, etc). Through it all, I just didn’t feel the urge to create and maintain a personal site again- until now… why?
Above all, this site still represents a digital frontier. Much of the physical world had already been discovered by the time I was born, so the web represents the most open and boundless space to build, experiment, and connect. While web development itself is far more refined and accessible today, that feeling of discovery and exploration of new space is still intoxicating. I am convinced that the digital world is not flat, and eager to set sail…
So nearing my 20th web anniversary, I find myself here again- searching for that magic and looking to turn a new page in my life.