Who is going to pay for open aid data experts?

I just had a first look at the World Bank's latest Development Oureach Magazine on The Contours and Possibilities of Open Development and then came across an interesting post by Ian Thorpe on Open data-experience needed. Ian makes an excellent point about the value of knowledge and expertise, but I really started to wonder how this expertise is going to be paid for. I can understand that 'civil society' in developing countries may be able to provide the expertise, knowledge and comunication tools to engage with aid transparency in their country, but as more and more momentum seems to be generated around aid transparency, I wonder who will do this in donor countries or for international organisations.

The Bank's assumption may be that 'everybody with a laptop' could do this, but the key point for me is time. I may be able to visualise, check and criticise data, but who is going to pay me for the hours, days and weeks I may have to spent in front of that laptop? One of the many reasons why the World Bank is so active on this front is that they have a great infrastruture. Not just laptops, but research assistants, software, academic articles, networks of professionals or a budget to set up a conference etc. On a smaller scale this is also applicable for the Centre for Global Development that now publishes datasets as well. So except for academic institutions who probably would have gotten access to the raw data anyway, who is going to pay for the wisdom of the crowd and the expertise of those new data experts? The problem for any potential funder is that it involves a lot of unspectacular number crunching and searching for needles in a haystick. Because those donors who gave money to the 'data producer' in the first place usually do it because of its good reputation and high quality of the data. I find it interesting that Ian only writes about expertise in a general way:
As more data is available, this specialized skill will be in increasing demand, and the work of those individuals and organizations who can do this will be at a premium. At present there are just not enough people with this skills around, and it will take time for people to be trained in them.
I am not sure about the 'premium'. Large organisations already have assembled teams of quantitative researchers to deal with data and I just cannot imagine a bilateral donor who would be willing to invest in independent data checking. However, I agree with Ian that we are probably talking about a small community anyway:
And in this case the crowd isn’t the general public – but rather those who have the required experience and technical skills – but who are not sitting in the organization which collected or produced the data in the first place.
In a very practical sense I have difficulties to imagine an independent organisation that can attract highly skilled people whose skills are in demand by organisations that can probably pay a premium. In short: Why cross-check World Bank data when you can help to produce them on a much better salary (after all, most are likely to economists ;)...)?
In a recent post IDS' Lawrence Haddad wrote about the evaluation initiatives led by 3ie:
Collectively DFID, 3ie and Aus Aid have recently funded about 200 systematic reviews on development interventions—each of these will focus on 20 or so studies, making for at least 4000 high quality studies of development interventions.
But this still looks like a very traditional way to collect data and produce evaluation outputs even if it is done on a larger scale or with a more advanced methodological framework (which then requires more time and knowledge of 'the crowd' to analyse it). Another potential challenge may be that in response to huge amounts of data a few large organisations like 3ie may absorb a lot of the money and expertise, indirectly undermining the idea that 'everybody with a laptop' can engage in the open aid debate. It also frames the debate around statistics and numbers and it will be interesting to see whether there is also space for alternative, non-technical engagement with data-I am talking about open aid anthropologists, open aid visual artists or open aid storytellers.

All in all, I am still critical about the new era of open data, transparency and crowd-sourced discussions. I have a feeling that open data will be less about technology or the amount of time spent on collecting, analysing and sharing data, but the willingness of organisations to provide the funding and time for a thorough and detailed critical crowd engagement with complicated numbers and the stories behind them.


  1. I think you have a good point about the availability of time (or funding) for data being an important constraint on the potential benefits of open data.

    That said, the public availability of data can also create new markets for its analysis.
    The open source software movement includes a lot of people contributing code for free alongside paid work. Data analysis might work the same way.
    Individuals can be motivated to carry out analysis in order to help make a name for themselves and to advance their career, perhaps landing a job with the Bank, or a thinktank or aid agency.

    Organizations can be motivated to fund this work because the analysis can help them develop new programmes and approaches, or help them advocate for funds or spot new business opportunities.

    This will mean that some areas of work will get more attention than others depending on the opportunities they offer - and the Bank and other major data providers will remain a major source of analysis - but they will not be monopoly providers.

  2. On a practical level, I guess we both more or less agree: Development has an amazing ability to create and (re-)invent new forms of expertise and experts and 'open data' will probably follow a similar track than 'gender', 'participation' or 'sustainability' did before. So I agree that there will be more spaces for new experts and their 'knowledge products'. I am still a bit worried that in our day and age it might require 'digital natives' to work a lot for little money as we have been seeing in other knowledge-intensive sectors. Which is interesting for the discursive level as well. I thought the whole idea about open data would be that it breaks through the cycle of established policy-making, accountability etc. Open data may not automatically mean more engagement by 'ordinary citizens', but more pressure 'from below', by individuals and small, mobile, flexible teams. You are hinting at the old model of 'making a name' for yourself and then join a big organisation. It will be interesting to see what type of 'start-up' type organisations will emerge and how they will be funded-and hopefully this will not just be about the quantitative aspects of visualisation or dealing with large datasets-we need anthropological open data archaeologists as much as engineers or IT experts.

  3. Interesting: I just came across a recent article at Salon.com that argues the decline of the 'creative class' (which in my understanding does not only comprise media or entertainment, but knowledge jobs in the development industry as well). Only time will tell whether cities like DC or Seattle will be 'transformed' through development knowledge among other things or whether aid data and knowledge management will be more centralised leaving few independent opportunities for the creative class of development.

    'The creative class is a lie
    The dream of a laptop-powered "knowledge class" is dead. The media is melting. Blame the economy -- and the Web'



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