Why the wealthiest countries are also the most open with their data

Oxford Internet Institute
Oxford Internet Institute

The Oxford Internet Institute this week posted a nice visualization of the state of open data in 70 countries around the world, reflecting the willingness of national governments to release everything from transportation timetables to election results to machine-readable national maps. The tool is based on the Open Knowledge Foundation's Open Data Index, an admittedly incomplete but telling assessment of who willingly publishes updated, accurate national information on, say, pollutants (Sweden) and who does not (ahem, South Africa).

Tally up the open data scores for these 70 countries, and the picture looks like this, per the Oxford Internet Institute (click on the picture to link through to the larger interactive version):


Oxford Internet Institute

That's Great Britain in the lead at left, followed by the U.S., Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Australia. Each segment in the above chart corresponds to a country's score on one of the component metrics (election results, government budget, etc.). The orange outlier in that left group is Israel. Meanwhile, Kenya, Yemen and Bahrain are among the countries at the far right. To drill down even further, here's the picture of who releases national mapping data:


OII

And details on government spending:


OII

With apologies for the tiny, tiny type (and the fact that many countries aren't listed here at all), a couple of broad trends are apparent. For one, there's a prominent global "openness divide," in the words of the Oxford Internet Institute. The high scores mostly come from Europe and North America, the low scores from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Wealth is strongly correlated with "openness" by this measure, whether we look at World Bank income groups or Gross National Income per capita. By the OII's calculation, wealth accounts for about a third of the variation in these Open Data Index scores.

Perhaps this is an obvious correlation, but the reasons why open data looks like the luxury of rich economies are many, and they point to the reality that poor countries face a lot more obstacles to openness than do places like the United States. For one thing, openness is also closely correlated with Internet penetration. Why open your census results if people don't have ways to access it (or means to demand it)? It's no easy task to do this, either.

"And it is imaginable that governments in rich economies simply have more manpower to throw at the problem," says the OII's Mark Graham in an email. "You can't really enact an open data strategy on autopilot: i.e. you need an actual implementable strategy that might require a lot of people to alter some embedded path-dependencies."

There are also, obviously, a lot of (bad) reasons to lock down your data even if you've got the manpower to release it: If you've got a corrupt government, transparency's probably not your thing. If you've got high unemployment, deep poverty or a serious pollution problem, you're probably not inclined to hand over information about those problems to the people who live with them.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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