The World Bank works with a network of specialists all over the world to gather and curate a large body of economic development data each year. The organization has made a few million dollars from subscription sales of its datasets to universities and other institutional subscribers - but last year the Bank decided it would rather give the data away for free and see what would happen.
In order to make the most of this new opportunity, the Bank decided to work with Challenge Post, a software developer contest adminstration service, to create a contest called Apps for Development, challenging developers around the world to build apps on top of the data. The apps are in, it's time to vote and the things people have built are quite remarkable. The apps have come from 30 different countries and more were built in Africa than in Europe.
Debate about the Bank and its data
See the blog Flowing Data's coverage and discussion of the Bank's opening of its data in April 2010.
Data guru Jon Udell was critical of the way the data was released, saying it "could be webbier."
Data hacker and ReadWriteWeb contributor Pete Warden was very excited about the data's availability in CSV format and said "I hope more providers consider data dumps in addition to APIs, they open up so many more uses."
ReadWriteWeb's Klint Finley covered the launch of the contest, noting that the World Bank has faced extensive criticism on multiple levels, all over the world. "But this could be a good opportunity for developers with ideas to do some good while making some money," he wrote.
107 applications have been submitted, ranging from tools for visualizing the World Bank data to a social bookmarking tool for categorizing web pages as related to various Millenium Development Goals, to an app that delivers prenatal and maternal health information to the mobile phones of mothers and many more. In order to be submitted, an app had to make some use of World Bank data and it had to adress one of the United Nations' Millenium Development Goals.
"Developers have been using the data in ways we never dreamed of," says the World Bank's Neil Fantom. "The subscription model had some advantages but that advantage is far outweighed by what we're seeing with the data we're now publishing.
"It's been important to provide incentives for people to use the data [and as a result] we're reaching a completely different audience here with this challenge."
Can making data available change peoples' minds, policies and lives? "We're just at the edge of that," Fantom says. He cites early examples like a mobile reporting system in Bolivia that rural households have used to verify whether solar panels included in an electrification project have in fact been delivered. That kind of mobile data collection, mashed up with other data, can help form an accountability loop to maximize the effectiveness of development projects.
Fantom says the World Bank is currently recruiting an open data evangelist and aims to transform a meaningful amount of its work under this model. The ways that developers use and ask for data will influence the ways the organization gathers and offers data, he says.
Many parts of the world still don't have basic data sets that other people take for granted - like vital records of deaths and their causes. "Imagine trying to do something with insurance without that kind of basic data, for example," Fantom says.
The prospect of a global institution using its resources to create new data assets that can be made freely available to a world-wide corps of innovative developers and then turned into software that's deployed to a global populace, heavily connected by mobile device - that's a very different vision of development than dominated the last century.
The possibilities are many and hopefully this will just be the beginning
"We are trying to open up the model so we have collaboration with a whole range of different innovators," says Fantom. "We don't know what people will do with our data but on the whole we believe they are going to add value to it. No, we're sure they'll add value to it."
Voting on which apps should be awarded prizes is open to the public through the month of February.