Executive Summary

Recent years have witnessed considerable enthusiasm over open data. Several studies have documented its potential to spur economic innovation and social transformation as well as to usher in fresh forms of political and government accountability. Yet for all the enthusiasm, we know little about how open data actually works and what forms of impact it is really having.

This report seeks to remedy that informational shortcoming. Supported by Omidyar Network, the GovLab has conducted 19 detailed case studies of open-data projects around the world. The case studies were selected for their sectoral and geographic representativeness. They were built in part from secondary sources (“desk research”), but also from a number of first-hand interviews with important players and key stakeholders. In this report, we consider some overarching lessons that we can learn from the case studies and assemble them within an analytical framework that can help us better understand what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to open data.

The report begins (“I. What Is Open Data?”) with an overview of open data. Like many technical terms, open data is a contested and dynamic concept. The GovLab has conducted a study of nine widely used definitions to arrive at the following working definition, which guides our discussion here:

Open data is publicly available data that can be universally and readily accessed, used, and redistributed free of charge. It is structured for usability and computability.

“II. The Case Studies” includes a brief summary of our 19 case studies, each of which is detailed at considerably greater length, in Parts II through V. Sections III through V represent the core of our analytical framework; they identify the key parameters and variables that determine the impact of open data.

“III. What Is the Impact of Open Data on People’s Lives?” discusses what we have identified as the four most important dimensions of impact. Based on the case studies, GovLab has determined that open data projects are improving government, primarily by making government more accountable and efficient; empowering citizens, by facilitating more informed decision-making and enabling new forms of social mobilization; creating new economic opportunities; and helping policymakers and others find solutions to big, previously intractable public problems (e.g., related to public health or global warming).

These types of effects cannot be taken for granted. They are evident to varying degrees across our case studies, and sometimes not at all. Our research also identified four enabling conditions that allow the potential of open data to manifest (“IV. What Are the Enabling Conditions that Significantly Enhance the Impact of Open Data?”). Overall, we found that open data projects work best when they are based on partnerships and collaborations among various (often intersectoral) organizations; when they emerge within what we call an open data public infrastructure that enables the regular release of potentially impactful data; when they are accompanied by clear open data policies, including performance metrics; and when they address or attempt to solve a well-defined problem or issue that is an obvious priority to citizens and likely beneficiaries.

“V. What Are the Challenges to Open Data Making an Impact?” identifies the key challenges that open data projects face. These include a lack of readiness, especially evident in the form of low technical and human capacity in societies or nations hosting open data initiatives; projects that are unresponsive—and thus inflexible—to user or citizen needs; projects that result in inadequate protections for privacy or security; and, finally, projects that suffer from a shortage of resources, financial and otherwise. None of the 19 initiatives we studied was immune to these obstacles; the most successful ones had found ways to surmount them and build applications or platforms that were nonetheless able to tap into the potential of open data.

“VI. Recommendations: Toward a Next Generation Open-Data Roadmap” features a set of 10 recommendations directed at policymakers, entrepreneurs, activists, and others contemplating open-data projects. Each of these broad recommendations is accompanied by more specific and concrete steps for implementation. Together, these recommendations and steps for implementation add up to something of a toolkit for those working with open data. Although preliminary, they are designed to guide the open-data community in its ongoing efforts to launch new initiatives that achieve maximum societal, economic, political, and cultural change.

The report ends with each of our 19 in-depth case studies, presented in full and organized by their dimension of impact.

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