World Bank President: “Open data, open knowledge and open solutions”

The president of the World Bank gave a speech titled “Democratizing Development Economics” (full speech here), and it is actually specifically about “open data, open knowledge and open solutions” (in his words) to increase the access to the World Bank data that is given out for free!

Do not applaud the World Bank for the brave move just yet.  The missing link (and unsung hero) is a Swedish Professor in Public Health, also an open data advocate Hans Rosling, who criticized the World Bank with harsh words in a speech last year in front of an audience of American officials in the State Department

Professor Hans Rosling has a series of impressive stage performance in turning data into engaging presentation.  For example, in his presentation to the State department in 2009, titled “Let my dataset change your mindset”, he criticized the World Bank for not giving out the data for free, while thanking the U.S. tax payers and applauding the U.S. government  for making the public health data available to the world.   What follows is the exact quote copied and pasted from the transcript of his speech:

“And it is U.S. government at its best, without advocacy, providing facts, that it’s useful for the society. And providing data free of charge, on the internet, for the world to use. Thank you very much.  Quite in the opposite of the World Bank, who compiled data with government money, tax money, and then they sell it to add a little profit, in a very inefficient, Guttenberg way.”

As an Internet researcher who has vested interest in open data and free software tools for research, I am happy to see the direction that the World Bank is taking.  I am happier because it is official, announced by the president.  

Still, I think it is necessary to thank the open data advocate and Swedish Public Health Professor Hans Rosling for his past hard work in pressing the idea of open data and better visualization.  (It is clear that one of the World Bank blog post documented and confirmed such a connection.)

I hope this blog post can fill the gap that the mainstream media has missed (e.g. Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Reuters).  The basis for the new “multipolar knowledge” for a new “multipolar economy” is the open and free data for any players, including NGOs, social entrepreneurs, activist groups, etc. to produce diverse new knowledge for the field of development economics, creating even more new data, tools, policies and practices.  That is exactly what the speech title for the speech “Democratizing Development Economics” means.

One interesting implication for the new manifesto on open data, open knowledge and open solutions is the possibility to redefine what the “Washington consensus” is (or turn into other “consensus 2.0″).  Imagine a world of development economics that follows the knowledge- and tool-production practices like Linux and Wikipedia.  There are no final versions of Linux operating systems or Wikipedia articles, but a lot of variant versions that differs from one another while sharing a lot of in common.  It is like turning the economic term “Washington consensus” into an always-beta “rough consensus and running code” that is at the core values of Internet protocols.   

I am still waiting to see if the rosy future will ever happen: open data leads to open knowledge; open knowledge leads to open solutions; open solutions lead to diverse practices that shape and share a “rough consensus” in leading the world’s economic (and political) development.

4 thoughts on “World Bank President: “Open data, open knowledge and open solutions”

  1. As early as 1999, I wrote to the World Bank press office to criticize its failure to share information on its website.
    The following paragraphs are some excerpts from the letter.

    “I am SO irritated with this website [the World Bank's official website]. I promise you, if ever I get a chance to interview Mr Wolfensohn [the World Bank's president from 1995 to 2005], I’m going to hector him, slowly and painfully, about this website. Why, when the World Bank has, supposedly, changed its entire policy towards inclusion and spreading information, is the World Bank website still set up as an almost entirely commercial operation? Why not make the information available?

    “I would just like to ask you to ponder the introductory lines of the World Development Report 1998/9 – the overview – and consider these lines, in the context of your website, which, as you know, excludes 95% of the public that you, the World Bank, are supposedly serving. The lines read thus:

    ‘”Knowledge is like light. Weightless and intangible, it can easily travel the world, enlightening the lives of people everywhere. Yet billions of people still live in the darkness of poverty – unnecessarily.”

    “Just so. I would suggest that the personnel at the World Bank website should paste these lines up in large type at the entrance to their office, as a succinct and exact description of what is wrong with the website, why it is not functioning as it should, and what could be done to remedy it. The knowledge that you have available at the World Bank could travel the world, costlessly. Yet you deliberately choose not to let it.”

    The World Bank replied publicly, politely, and (privately) admitted that I had caused irritation and offence. But they did nothing, for a decade.

  2. Check out:

    As you can see, the World Bank is committed to free, accessible data.

    Hans Rosling has spoken at and advised the Bank on numerous occasions, including twice last week during the annual meetings, which were broadcast online with social media inclusion from over 130 countries(1). The World Bank works with his son Ola Rosling to release it’s data through Google searches in 34 languages (2).

    If your criticism is that this didn’t happen fast enough, it’s important to judge an organization against its comparators, such as other development banks, agencies or the UN. The World Bank’s open data initiative and new full disclosure policy are considered leaders in the field.


  3. Hi, Ms. Molly (Norris?)
    Are you addressing to me or Mr. Matthew Montagu-Pollock?
    I am sure that I am not criticizing or praising the World Bank myself. I only wanted to point out something that I am aware of. I know for a fact that Professor Hans Rosling had given a series of TED talk, in which he demanded open access relatively early. I was exposed to that TED talk that he gave in 2006
    Thus, I was not posing an evaluative question to compare the World Bank with other institutions that are funded with public money from several states. People are entitled to have their viewpoints about when and how much is enough.
    So as an open source/free content believer myself, I am not only looking for the free and open access to data, but also to raw/disaggregate data, which is summarized by Dr. Dennis M. Ray.
    As for Mr. Matthew Montagu-Pollock’s comment, I think he is entitled to voicing his experience. However, I do agree with you that the timing issue is important here, so he is very kind to let me to add to his comment some of the specific information about time , to provide some context for this progress.
    I guess we can all agree that this general move is a progress. My intention is trying to keep a series of records of who has done what and when, so that people can make up their own minds based on facts and records.
    So I am looking forwards to see if you can summarize how other institutions have not done as good as what the World Bank has achieved now. Though I will use that comparison to ask other institutions to change, not to argue that the World Bank has done enough or has done its best. Of course you can say the World Bank is currently among the leaders in the field, but my idea of “field” may be different than yours. I tend to consider all other transnational website/institutions as part of the field. In this regard I will argue that what Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia Germany has done with their stats and toolserver have done even better jobs. Remember they are not even using public money but rather individual donations.
    Finally, I think we can all agree open access/data is the right direction forwards. It is just that we have different ideas of the main audience/users for the open data and data providers. In this regard, comparisons are not absolute but relative.
    I should visit the World Bank sometime since I am in DC now. Thank you for clarifying your vies. I am sure your comment here will be helpful to some other readers/users. Thank you for your valuable comments

  4. Hi Molly, thanks for your comment. My initial ‘complaint’ was made 13 years ago, so my memory of it is fading (but I do keep all emails!).

    What I do remember is that the IMF’s web site was then more open than the World Bank’s site, surprisingly given the IMF’s ‘hard’ reputation. Better organized too, less prone to hide research articles behind PR cotton-wool.

    In writing to you, I then held up the IMF as an example. So if the issue is, let’s look at the context, it was precisely because the IMF had illustrated how research information could be made openly and freely available, that I was irritated with the World Bank’s site. It seemed that an IFC-like enthusiasm for sponsoring private sector firms, had inappropriately resulted in World Bank research distribution being treated as a for-profit activity.

    Anyway those days are now long gone. I am sure there were people in the World Bank who saw the contradictions. But pointing these things out is often not a highly-rewarded career step, in giant institutions!