Help us build an evidence base on the social impact of open data!

open data in Scrabble letters
Photo by Flickr user Justin Grimes

Talking about the economic benefit of open data is one good way to describe open data’s impact, and provides a “great rationale” for the release of relevant data sets. However, open data’s impact does not lie solely in the economic sphere. Government openness may produce tremendous other benefits for our societies: increasing state or institutional responsiveness, reducing levels of corruption and clientelism, building new democratic spaces for citizens, empowering local and disadvantaged voices, or enhancing service delivery and effective service utilization.

But how effective open data and government transparency actually are at producing these social benefits is not yet at all evident. At a time when “fake government openness” and “open-washing” are increasingly seen as a risk to the transparency movement’s credibility, there is burning need for more evidence on how opening up government information helps us all use resources more “effectively, equitably and sustainably to meet people’s needs.” Developing indexes and comparative studies on a wide range of topics (e.g. budgets, the freedom of the web, aid, perceived corruption, etc.) is a crucial first step, but in order to get more buy-in from our policy-makers and a critical mass of citizens, we need to look beyond those indexes and find other ways to analyze the effect of open data on societies.

Much of the existing literature seeking to measure the impact and effectiveness of transparency and open data accountability initiatives seem to face a common challenge: It is incredibly difficult to come up with definitive, evidence-based generalizations about how “x” type of initiatives produce “y” kinds of effects. The field has yet to coalesce around a theory of change, for one, and there are significant methodological challenges around comparability and unevenness of evidence.

At Sunlight, we would like to help change that. As a continuation of our work to provide examples of how opening up information makes a difference in communities across the U.S., we want to tackle some of these challenges through a new research project to explore and analyze the social impact of open data outside the U.S. Our goal is to build a strong evidence base that might empower further generalizations and to develop a few potential theories of change that capture the nuances, complexity and messiness of this broad agenda. With generous support from the Open Data for Development Research Fund of the OGP Open Data Working Group, our research aims to identify the factors that increase the likelihood that open data initiatives will achieve their stated goals in a particular context. We also seek to understand why and how these factors lead to success or failure.

As a first step, we are asking you — the community of transparency and open government advocates, civic hackers, investigative journalists and policy makers — to provide us with illustrative examples of how open data and transparency projects are having impact on our societies.

Help us build an evidence base for open data and submit your case story here!
Are you working on an open data project that improves the level of political participation and citizen engagement? Do you know any tech-based transparency project that you think might lead to change in social behavior? Is your transparency initiative aimed at decreasing the perception of corruption, fraud or waste. Has it led to more investigations or better investigative journalism? Are you aware of an open data initiative that improves public service delivery or social policies? From environmental through educational and public safety to health outcomes, we’re looking for examples — both on the local and national level — that look beyond the direct economic benefits of open data and illustrate how government openness produces social benefits.

We realize that the definitions we use here are a bit broad, but our goal is to encourage everyone working in this field to help us build a strong evidence base that we can further filter and analyze. So please help us and submit your case story through this link, or send it to! All you need to do is give a very short description of your project and how you think it’s making a change in our societies. Any supporting documents (theories of change, articles, impact stories) in both your local language or in English are welcome too.

Access to government information and decision-making processes is a fundamental democratic principle. Open data and digital transparency are one important way of achieving that access. Help us make our case even stronger!