Posted 24 April, 2012 by Susannah Vila

The Open Index: Open Data Standards for Human Rights & Development Indices

The Open Índex

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At the New School in New York, I presented an argument for open data standards to the International Network on Quantitative Methods for Human Rights & Development. The gathering was dominated largely by academics and representatives from International NGOs, with a smattering of international public servants (UNDP, World Bank and UN OHCHR). Most of the discussion focused on strengthening the role of indicators in international policy processes such as the Millenium Development Goals, and methodological issues related to the construction of international indices.  My role was slightly different, as I advocated the application of open data norms to international indices, from a perspective informed both by my work at the UNDP, where actionability of data at the country level is paramount, and by the larger ethos of open data and open process.

My basic argument (which is being developed into a paper, and is not UNDP policy) was that the raw logistics of international data collection on country-level governance has traditionally precluded engagement with country-level actors, because most international initiatives simply do not have the resources to engage across countries. Comparative initiatives thus tend to rely significantly on varying combinations of administrative data and “expert” evaluations. This, together with the name and shame reflex of human rights advocacy, has resulted in a proliferation of comparative human rights data that country level actors often find difficult to relate to, and which provides no guidance for addressing and remedying failures in governance at the country level.

Thus, the UN Human Development Index is arguably the only international index on country-level governance that engages country-level actors in the construction and development of the index, opening up opportunities for country-level advocacy and reform as a by-product of the process itself. In short, the UN is the only international data collector with a normative legitimacy and a mandated staff in just about all the countries in the world. This does not explain the more exceptionally paternalistic comparative approaches à la Freedom House, but it does explain why international data collectors don’t spend much time making sure that their data is useful to country-level actors, and country-level actionability has come to be considered an afterthought, if it is considered at all. Technology challenges these assumptions considerably, and specifically in both the supply and demand of data.


It is now possible to access and collect country data in ways that were unimaginable even 10 years ago.  While the technologies of crowdsourcing, mobile interviews, and big data scraping/verification are not yet appropriate for comparative collection across regions, they are very quickly on their way. Moreover, ICTs have lowered the barriers to transnational communication so significantly, that I find it hard to sustain an argument against country-level engagement to contextualize and validate (administrative) data collection.

Doing so is likely to produce better data, and more importantly, involving country-level bureacrats and advocates in the process plays an important function in norm promotion, and can open up spaces for national discourse that do not flow automatically from a country being christened “partly free” or #37. Engaging in these processes would involve some degree of resource expenditure in time and money, and would also require some reconsideration of the nature of initiatives.


Of course, for all its bells and whistles, this kind of engagement still makes demands on data collection that may not be feasible (especially, perhaps, in terms of organisation’s ideological orientations). The technological novelty that costs less, and can arguably do even more, is to open up data and make it accessible.

I argue that this makes good sense for indices because the cost is so low, and that doing so opens up for some of the supply advantages mentioned above at virtually no extra cost.  As country-level actors see the data and the methodologies used to rank their human rights performance according to other countries, they are bound to comment. Some of this will not be useful. Some of it will: directing to alternative data sources, explanatory factors and improved data.  More importantly, opening up allows for the mobilization of data in advocacy at the country level. Being ranked #37 has some rhetorical punch of course, but it is a fairly blunt instrument.

Profoundly more useful is access to raw data that can be manipulated and mashed according to local political and contextual dynamics.  Mobilizing international comparative data in tandem with data that is “owned” by states or produced by parties perceived as neutral can be particularly enabling, as it is more likely to resonate in policy processes. In the longer term, open international data is also actionable in other processes, which can contribute to developing the integration of governance data into common political discourse. As data is promoted in academic, advocacy and technocratic discourse at the country-level, this strengthens the normative foundations on which a virtuous cycle for the demand and supply of governance data is built. In short, there is no telling what might come of it, but the potential is huge, the cost is minimal, and the norm is ripe in international circles.

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