Saepe cadendo

by brunosan

Upgrading the World Data Bank

The Open Data Catalog at the World Bank is a fantastic resource. I´ve used it many, many times. Specially while developing the GAIN Index. I´m sure I´ve spent hours on that domain. It´s astonishing the amount of information they´ve gathered on a consistent way.

Our Gain Index indeed uses, and references, roughly 80% of it´s components directly back to the Catalog. Proudly, but oddly, a number of people have told me that they use our page instead of the Bank´s to get a glimpse of the data for a particular country. As humbling as that is, it´s odd that our page gets visits to see the components, not the aggregation we do for our purposes. It´s like buying a book for the Bibliography.

Last Thursday the data team posted a call for input. They are upgrading the Catalog to be “more technologically capable, but also more user friendly, readable and understandable”. On their summary of the proposition they highlight: Search, Federation, user friendliness, better metadata, and scalable.

These are my six points of feedback: fast, flat, visual, better feedback, support more granularity of data, and open the source.

SPEED

The Catalog must be fast. And I can propose a concrete benchmark:
Faster than using the traditional sets of Excel files many people use. That´s the inertia from part of their target users. Why would I prefer to fire up the website every time If I can download the whole thing to my disk? This is specially important if you don´t have a fast connection, like it happens in many parts of the world.

  • Avoid full page reloads. A substantial percentage of the page will be the same, and it will not have the content I am looking for ( navigation links, legal/institutional notices, …). Having light overheads of headers and technologies like AJAX could help with this.

  • Transfer to the client browser as much as possible. Browsers can do amazing things, not just painting server states. Either using things like node.js or via other options, it could speed things up significantly. Also, the less the servers do, the more the IT and security guys at the Bank will like it. Back when I worked inside the Department of Defense, Javascript was golden, and PHP was evil.

  • Asynchronous calls. Avoid linearity. This is related to avoiding full page reloads if I, e.g., want to add a country to a plot, or I´ve requested more info on a particular data point.

All these points are actually related to make the Catalog feel less like a website and more like an app.

As flat as possible

This is also related with speed. Minimize the clicks-to-target. The distance from the front page to any piece of information should less than, say, three clicks, or two. Same for the most common cases like i.e. showing the world´s GDP compared to x and y country.

Low friction for basic users

If journalists and general citizens are target groups, I believe having a simple visual landing page is very important. Something they might be used to. Something like a Google Search style. Faceted searches are good for experts but intimidating if you don´t know the answer to all options presented. And they occupy a lot of space on the screen.

I also love maps, interactive maps. Personally, and this is the way I´m leading the upgrade of GAIN, a simple interactive map like GAIN and then adding search fields like Google (or Wolfram Alpha). Procrastinating folks can navigate the map slipping towards deeper levels of detail. The search box, small but prominent, gives you access to everything. Coupling it with some predictive/popular suggestion could be very powerful to allow one click links to queries like:

  • GDP of the World, and Spain and Sub-Saharian countries.
  • Top 10 countries by Population.
  • What measures and years aer available for Nuaru since 2000?

Feedback

Over the course of these 2 years working with the Catalog I´ve found around around 50 cases of small bugs, missing explanations or unexpected behaviours. The feedback channel, an email, is very opaque to the rest of the users. Certainly the answer has been always positive and every email I´ve sent was replied. Even when I tweeted about it, like when I found out that apparently 99% of the nurses in Netherlands had been fired:

It would be great If you could flag data, or measures, and leave feedback, or requests. Other users could reply, or vote, raising prominence to the issue. I can see how this could also pressure the original sources of the data which on many causes are also the root of the issue, like the example above with the nurses data.

Fixing identified issues with the data is specially important if you intend to use the data directly via APIs. Otherwise, you need extra steps to fix those issues.

Towards organic resolution

This is a big one I´m also struggling with. Most of the available data is at the national level. There are many reasons for that, from feasibility and gathering constrains, to pragmatism to the scale most users wanted. Nowadays it´s increasingly easy to get data, but also we demand more granularity. For some Indicators national scale makes sense, like fiscal policies, but for many other the higher the resolution the better. For example access to energy at the national level is important to prioritize in the global context, but knowing on which region to focus is equally relevant. This is specially the case for big heterogeneous countries, like India, China, Russia, USA …

What I’m proposing, and is the direction I´m planning to develop at GAIN, is an organic resolution protocol:

  • There is a background database with all available measures, at all available resolutions, as a network of nodes with plenty relations among them based on geography, economy, culture, correlations, …

  • If the user request one of them, it´s instantly served.

  • Sometimes one might need aggregates of available data, like for example all countries from LAC, or spanish speaking, or cities inside this watershed. The interface then requests that job and it´s served aggregated as the median or envelope values (this can probably be also done at the client level via Javascript).

  • Sometimes the data is simply not available, and then some working assumptions could be suggested like based on geographical neighbours, similar countries in other correlated measures, temporal extrapolations … In these cases probably more computation is needed, specially to provide degree of uncertanty.

Open the Source

Just like the White House releases much of the web tools they developed, the World Banks could do that. Even more, more than releasing, engaging in a conversation with the community e.g. using github: aggregating forks, issues, pull requests…


The data portal is a fantastic tool for both researchers and casual users. It´s already well ahead of the curve. But there is much more it could be done, no only to improve the portal and consumption of data, but also to spread best uses and help others catch up on their online resources.

Back in April 2010, the former President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, said:

"It's important to make the data and knowledge of the World Bank
available to everyone. Statistics tell the story of people in developing
and emerging countries and can play an important part in helping to
overcome poverty."

or as an american told me:

"In God we trust... but everyone else bring data"

Related tags: world bank, open data, data, ...

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