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Open Data Master Class

December 19, 2011

(David Jacobs is director of foundation information management at the Foundation Center. In his last post, he wrote about the bankruptcy of Solyndra LLC.)

Linked_dataRecently, Foundation Center staff participated in an Open Data Master Class presented by members of the World Bank, which has made all of its data freely available to the public. Over the course of the day-long session, staff learned how to use easily accessible Web platforms like GeoCommons to mash up geographic information and data from multiple sources to create informative, eye-opening maps on almost any subject imaginable.

Why is this important? Well, in addition to data-rich organizations like the World Bank, a number of donor country governments are beginning to make all sorts of valuable data available to the public as part of the so-called open data movement. Among the biggest and most accessible date troves are those amassed by the U.S. government and its frequent "special relationship" partner on the other side of the Atlantic, the UK. These open data sites, along with the World Bank site, offer a wealth of economic, development, and demographic information.

However, as many of you know, releasing gigabytes of data in context-free tables and hard-to-read files doesn't guarantee transparency or do much to advance knowledge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect, thanks to something called information overload. Which is why it is so important for programmers, GIS experts, information specialists, and others to be able to access this data and filter it in ways that can reveal valuable hidden nuggets of knowledge. A good example of this is the funding map on our new WASHfunders portal, which makes use of both free and professionally managed data to show private- and public-sector funding for clean water and sanitation projects by country and region.

While open data and GIS mapping are still young fields, making once-inaccessible data available to members of the public to mash up with other types of information -- demographic or geographic, for example -- has great potential to yield real social benefit.

And while the buzz around open data has been building, it shouldn't be limited to governments and large multilateral organizations. In fact, any organization in the sector can leverage their knowledge and contribute to the public good by sharing their own data and/or mashing it up with data provided by others to identify hidden needs, regions or communities that are underserved, and a host of other things.

What do you think? Where do you see opportunities for the sector to take better advantage of open data? Where have we been good? And where is there room for improvement? Share your thoughts (and data!) in the comments section below.

-- David Jacobs

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