Building Global Capacity on Open Data

In 2014, Transformative Solutions was invited to evaluate the Worldwide Web Foundation’s Open Data in Developing Countries project. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to openness and shared learning, we were asked to reflect on some of the findings, particularly around research as an approach to open data capacity building.

Building capacity for a newly formed research network can be challenging, especially one that focuses on a cutting-edge topic such as open data. In February 2013, the World Wide Web Foundation launched the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project; a research network which aims to study the impacts of open data on development, and build capacity in the developing world to conduct research on open data topics. The network members – coming from 12 different countries, working for very different organisation types, including universities, Non-Governmental Organisations and consultancy firms and individual researchers – are involved in producing academic and action research publications on the uses and impacts of open data in developing countries. With the World Wide Web Foundation taking a coordinating role, the network has produced new research insights and shared knowledge on open data concepts around the world.

The mentoring approach to capacity building

The project has not only focused on funding research, but has also provided mentoring and networking opportunities. Mentors, paired with each research partner, have provided guidance on social science research, content advice and technical knowledge, which has significantly improved the quality of the network’s research products. Although mentoring relationships do not always work out, where the model does work, it brings an opportunity for two-way learning between mentors and mentees, and supports capacity building whilst leaving partners on the ground in the driving-seat, defining research priorities that matter to them.

This particular network structure has allowed partners to share their experiences with open data in their national context and gain understanding of what is happening in different parts of the world – effectively gaining a global perspective on open data. Through peer-to-peer learning, many of the projects have developed a sharper understanding of issues around open data, while network meetings and on-line sharing platforms have allowed for cross-network learning and consolidating South-South connections.

How did the Open Data Research Network facilitate capacity building?

Through group discussions and webinars, research partners managed to raise their level of understanding of key open data concepts. Interestingly enough, some research partners even developed a more nuanced definition of open data that better fits their own context.

With these new insights, research partners built up their confidence to talk about open data issues as experts and engage with open data policy, and relevant policy in their own countries. As a result, most partners are now contributing or have contributed to other open data related networks with their know-how and experience. Carrying out research on the topic also enabled researchers to identify and connect with the main players in the open data field, and key national level policy makers.

Researchers also took the approach of bringing development issues into the open data debate. By looking at the role of open data, and how it can influence development in countries, whether issues of public health or budget accountability, the researchers took an innovative lens to the open data debate by layering the two topics together.

New open data skills applied

The Open Data Research Network partners are now armed with the skills to engage in local and global policy circles and talk to policy makers about opening up data. By participating in conferences and meetings with regional government councils and city halls, research partners have opened a dialogue on how government departments can work with open data in new and innovative contexts. In at least two cases, the relationships built with policy makers as a result of the project have encouraged regional governments to work with partners to help them design open data compliant policies. In one case, a Brazilian researcher was given a lead role in developing an open data portal for the city of Rio de Janeiro, now one of the largest municipal open government data portals in the world.

While the evaluation was carried out early in the project’s lifespan, the ODDC project, and the wider Open Data Research Network it created, already had a significant impact on developing the capacities and confidence of researchers around the world to engage in open data debates. Beyond this, it showed early signs of helping to create space for open data to play a positive role in development around the world. The potential for open data is limitless, and the continued efforts of groups like the Open Data Research Network shine a light on the positive effects that can be found when open data can be used to make effective, informed and efficient decisions around development.

Scroll to Top