Sunday, July 3, 2011

World Bank discovers power of disclosure

The NY Times ran a long article on the World Bank and its adoption of a policy of disclosure.  It is the first of the global financial regulators to discover that shedding its information monopoly has benefits.

Included in the benefits is the simple fact that you can put 100 of the brightest people in the world into a room and not match the market when it comes to thinking of useful ways to analyze the data.

The article also discusses the internal hurdles to global financial regulators shedding their information monopoly.  For example, we have PhD's fighting to keep the data confidential so they can write academic articles for other PhD's.  Excuse me, but the whole point of financial regulators is to protect the stability of the financial system, not to write academic articles.
.... [In] a radical departure for the often close-to-the-vest World Bank, which, like its brother, the International Monetary Fund, has been called everything from arrogant to inept. The World Bank, you see, wants the world to know that it is finally opening up, albeit slowly and, at times, a bit painfully. 
.... But while the I.M.F. is busy with scandal and the debt crisis now shaking Europe, officials at the World Bank’s headquarters here are confronting some existential questions, including the big one: What exactly are we doing here? 
The World Bank’s traditional role has been to finance specific projects that foster economic development, whereas the I.M.F.’s goal is to safeguard the global monetary system. 
But many people, particularly in the developing world, have long questioned whether the economic prescriptions that these two lofty institutions hand down from Washington — essentially: liberalize, privatize and deregulate — have done anything but advance the interests of wealthy nations like the United States. 
That the I.M.F. is now championing deeply unpopular austerity measures for Greece, where street protests continued last week, only sharpens that point. 
So it might come as a surprise that the president of the World Bank, Robert B. Zoellick, a career diplomat and member of the Republican foreign-policy elite, argues that the most valuable currency of the World Bank isn’t its money — it is its information. 
...  Long regarded as a windowless ivory tower, the World Bank is opening its vast vault of information. True, the bank still lends roughly $170 billion annually. But it is increasingly competing for influence and power with Wall Street, national governments and smaller regional development banks, who have as much or more money to offer. It is no longer the only game in town. 
And so Mr. Zoellick, 57, is wielding knowledge — lots of it. For more than a year, the bank has been releasing its prized data sets, currently giving public access to more than 7,000 that were previously available only to some 140,000 subscribers — mostly governments and researchers, who pay to gain access to it. 
Those data sets contain all sorts of information about the developing world, whether workaday economic statistics — gross domestic product, consumer price inflation and the like — or arcana like how many women are breast-feeding their children in rural Peru.
It is a trove unlike anything else in the world, and, it turns out, highly valuable. For whatever its accuracy or biases, this data essentially defines the economic reality of billions of people and is used in making policies and decisions that have an enormous impact on their lives.
Mr. Zoellick says the bank’s newfound openness is part of a push to embrace competition, both internally and externally, as it tries to reduce poverty and foster economic development. 
In short, the World Bank, long synonymous with Washington elitism, is taking steps to “democratize development economics,” to borrow a phrase from Mr. Zoellick, who is leading what many insiders regard as an assault on the bank’s power and prestige. 
“We do not have a monopoly on the answers,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University last fall. “For too long, prescriptions have flowed one way.” 
Something that is also true of the other global financial regulators.
... Now, he is essentially telling the World Bank’s 10,000 employees that he no longer considers their institution to be at the center of the development universe. 
“As opposed to some imperious bureaucracy in Washington, we’re making things open and accessible to people,” he says. “That makes for better performance, it makes for a more open system, it makes for people having a different attitude about the World Bank.” 
To some World Bank insiders, this amounts to a declaration of war on their decades-old culture, a war that began when Mr. Zoellick arrived and instituted a daily 8:30 a.m. meeting of senior executives — “a shock to some of the people involved,” he recalls. 
“It’s not been bloody, but it’s not been easy, either,” says Sanjay Pradhan, vice president of the World Bank Institute, a unit that advises and counsels governments, and that Mr. Zoellick has designated as his strike force in the fight for greater transparency. 
He is not the first World Bank leader to struggle to match its practices to its principles. The bank, after all, has had an open-information policy for four decades. James D. Wolfensohn, who ran the bank from 1995 to 2005 and was beloved by employees, even called it the “Knowledge Bank,” and during his tenure, it spent $280 million to improve the way it shares information with its staff, client governments and organizations. 
But by its own account, the World Bank failed to embed that concept of openness in its own culture, despite significant improvements in technology and tools for sharing information. 
“Senior management can announce grand strategies and reorganizations, but it must rely on middle management at the bank to execute them,” says David Ian Shaman, a former World Bank official. “Middle management is composed of fiefdoms that are preserved by maintaining the status quo and so has little incentive to implement change.” 
In a book titled “The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency,” Mr. Shaman chronicled his battle during the Wolfensohn era to webcast things like internal policy debates. Bank insiders worried that his Web service, called B-SPAN, would open the bank to criticism and reduce its authority. 
“The cultural norm of the bank is to hoard information, and when it does release information, it is either perfect or choreographed for delivery to a specific audience,” Mr. Shaman says. 
... DAVID ROODMAN, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has had his own struggles with the World Bank. But as a researcher, he says he understands reluctance among World Bank officials to throw open the doors. The bank’s researchers work hard to collect data. If it appears online, they may lose a chance to mine it for their own research papers, and thus lose money and prestige. 
“It’s the capital basis of your world — and if you share what you’ve done and people find mistakes, what’s in it for you?” Mr. Roodman says. 
People outside the World Bank are eager for its information. Its newly released data — from economic stats to numbers on landmines — has attracted more than 4.5 million unique views. Indeed, more people come to its Web site looking for data than anything else. 
“I’m astonished by the number of people apparently just waiting for our data to become free,” says Shaida Badiee, director of the bank’s economic development data group. “I had no idea how big a deal this was going to be.” 
Mr. Zoellick says that he understands his employees’ worries but that opening analysis and research to public scrutiny will lead to fewer mistakes. “There will be, I’m sure over a series of years, bad stories that come out as a result of this, and if you’re part of the bad stories, it’s probably not going to be something you’re going to like,” he says. “But my view is that it is far better for the institution and its health to be open.” 
One day last spring, in the bank’s sunlit atrium, Mr. Zoellick’s team doled out prizes for a contest called Apps for Development. Software developers worldwide had submitted Web applications based on the bank’s data. 
The atrium is the bank’s agora, home to shows and presentations, and people often arrive in national dress for big events. 
But that day, the most exotic people were young developers like Frank van Cappelle, a Dutch national who is a doctoral candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. His app, StatPlanet, lets people explore more than 3,000 World Bank economic indicators with interactive maps and graphics. It won the $15,000 first prize. 
One finalist was an app to help pregnant mothers use their mobile phones to find World Bank data about maternal health in their countries and languages. Another was a game designed to increase awareness of deforestation. 
Mr. van Cappelle says the contest encouraged people to make sense of the bank’s information. “There’s a lot of data out there right now locked up in databases,” he says, “and I think it requires apps like this one and some other apps that have been developed to unlock that prison.” 
The World Bank promoted the contest partly to remind its own employees that the old barriers are coming down. 
“You know, we could have had a hundred smart people sitting here for a year and never come up with a lot of that stuff,” Mr. Zoellick says. The bank, he says, is essentially widening the circle of people it can brainstorm with. 
Having created models for open-sourcing and crowd-sourcing, the bank is now moving toward mash-ups. A new Mapping for Results program offers interactive maps pinpointing locations of almost 3,000 bank projects in more than 16,000 places worldwide. Links open up pages with information about each project, and users can add overlays that show, say, where infant mortality is highest to see whether the bank’s work in those areas matches the need. 
The program is sensitive because it involves releasing data provided by client governments and others, but the hope is that it will prompt these parties to link their own data on economic and social development to the site or otherwise make it available. 
THE Swedish government, a big public supporter of development projects, has followed suit with a prototype, a Web site with information about where it spends its aid money and the impact its spending has had. “The goal is to achieve as effective poverty reduction as possible,” the Swedish government said this year in announcing the effort. “To achieve this goal, development cooperation must be opened up to transparency and ideas from others.” 
Next week, Kenya, too, will open a Web site giving access to data that, until now, has existed largely in books on the shelves of various ministries. Software developers are already playing with it — seeking patterns like whether there is any correlation between the government’s spending on schools and students’ test scores, literacy and matriculation. 
“The World Bank has made it easier with what it is doing with open data,” says Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information. 
The broader release of such data will enable more “scientific” policy-making, cut down on corruption in Kenya and engage more people in government by empowering them with knowledge they can use to challenge political leaders, he says. 
Asked if there would be resistance to public dissemination of government data, Dr. Ndemo said transparency was inevitable. 
Information is valuable, he says, and people will find a way to get it: “This is one of those things, like mobile phones and the Internet, that you cannot control.”

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