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Free the data

Volume 7 Number 12 December 12 2011 - January 8 2012

A prize-winning app designed by a PhD student is part of the growing movement to open up data. By Catriona May.

PhD student Frank van Cappelle is on a mission to unlock the vast amounts of data held by governments and other large organisations.

With his StatPlanet software already used by organisations like UNESCO, NASA, Samsung and Siemens, Mr van Cappelle earlier this year won the World Bank’s first ever ‘Apps for Development’ competition, for an app that makes the bank’s data easily accessible.

His software presents data visually, through interactive graphs and maps, so that it can be easily accessed and understood.

The World Bank now uses StatPlanet to visualise their database of global education statistics, EdStats, through user-friendly navigation, “pop up” information bubbles, a time-lapse “play” button and Google maps-like functionality that allows users to zoom, grab and highlight.

Based in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education’s Assessment Research Centre, Mr van Cappelle’s PhD is looking at whether and how this kind of visualisation improves understanding of policy issues.

“There are mind-blowing amounts of data being produced by governments, NGOs and other organisations around the world. We can now use software to visualise this data, making it more accessible to policy-makers, to drive more effective, evidence-based policy,” explains Mr van Cappelle.

“Policy-makers are not necessarily adept at understanding statistics, and statisticians may not have much say in policy decision-making. I think technology can act as a bridge and make statistics directly accessible to those who make influential decisions, but have limited time and expertise when it comes to dealing with data.

“Rather than data being accessible only to a few technical people, applications such as StatPlanet can open them up to a wider audience and empower users to explore, manipulate and analyse.”

Mr van Cappelle considers his work to be part of the growing open data movement.

“Over the past few years, more and more institutions have been releasing their data online. And it’s not tucked away – a lot of the time, access to this data is featured prominently on their home pages,” he says.

What these organisations require, according to Mr van Cappelle is an online interface that allows them to present their data in a user-friendly way. StatPlanet was developed using Adobe Flash software, which works across most platforms (such as Windows, Mac OS, Linux and Android), and runs in a web browser as well as offline. Accessibility is key to its success.

“Until recently, accessing data online meant downloading unwieldy databases, and wading your way through large amounts of user-unfriendly, static data.

“Now we’re seeing organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations Development Program making their data really accessible and user-friendly.”

Mr van Cappelle is also interested in how visualisation can narrow the gap in public accountability between the developed world and the developing world.

“Although we might complain about the lack of transparency in our country, in comparison to the rest of the world countries such as Australia, Canada, Norway, the UK and USA are miles ahead in terms of accountability, with nitty gritty details of government regularly made available to the public.

“There is a huge gap between this situation and that of countries where accountability remains low. I’m particularly interested in how technology can support more accountability in the developing world.”

Mr van Cappelle says the recent launch of the Kenyan Government’s open data website might be the start of developing countries joining the open data movement.

“Kenya’s open government data site already contains a wealth of information and has generated a lot of positive publicity for Kenya. It’s not just the first of its kind in Africa, it’s one of the first in the world and hopefully similar initiatives in other developing countries will follow.”

Mr van Cappelle will continue to work on accessible, user-friendly visualisation software while he completes his PhD. Ultimately he would like to work closely with government institutions in developing countries to make their data more accessible and support evidence-based decision-making.

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