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The World Bank announced this week that it will providing “free, open and easy access to World Bank statistics and indicators about development.” It is an important step for the Bank. First and foremost because it will facilitate more research and better-informed writing about development issues; but also because it recognizes that this kind of information is exactly the kind of public good that the World Bank should be producing. (You can learn more about this effort from the video embedded on this page, and access the bank’s data catalogue here.)
In terms of the first issue – promoting more research – I recall how, when I was in graduate school many years ago, the amount of research on income inequality in Brazil was huge relative to the amount of similar research in Mexico. The reason, as best as I could tell, was that Brazil made its census data available in the 1960s and 1970s to all kinds of researchers; while Mexico was withholding data access to a few select people. Data access, particularly in this age of computers and websites, is fodder for advancing ideas about development. This is great.
On the second issue – producing public goods – I recall a presentation by Hans Rosling (probably the most entertaining statistician alive) who asked why we pay taxes to support organizations like the World Bank and then have to pay them again to get data out of them! This point was one that resonated with me. When working at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in the mid 1990s, our office asked the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) for access to household survey data that they had collected and were told we would have to pay for it. Did I mention that the ECLAC collected the data with financial assistance from (here’s your chance to guess) … the IADB?
Rosling points out in a recent video that “Statistics means bookkeeping of the state, serving the decisionmakers within the state. Times have changed. We need to get them [statistics] to the public.” Congratulations to the World Bank for doing the right thing and getting this data to the public.