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Open Data Intermediaries: Their Crucial Role

Web Foundation · August 18, 2015

This is the latest post in our series exploring the results from the Open Data in Developing Countries Phase 2 project.

At the Web Foundation, we’re excited about how open data can be harnessed to make real improvements in the day to day lives of ordinary citizens — particularly those in developing countries. But, we know that a complex process is required to unlock the benefits of open data — one that spans not only the release of data, but also includes turning that data into actionable intelligence used to make things better.

At the International Seminar on Accountability and Corruption Control, Prof. Alasdair Roberts stated that “citizens will be more dependent on third parties — groups that I will call trusted intermediaries — to assure that transparency policies are maintained”.  Meanwhile, speaking at the United Nations in the lead up to the International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Tony Pipa, US special coordinator for the post-2015 development agenda, predicted that during the next 15 years of global development work, there will be an expansion in the number of “data intermediaries”. Pipa alludes to a range of skills that data intermediaries may have in assuring the use of data.

Recognising the critical role that intermediaries can play, François van Schalkwyk and his co-researchers set out to answer some key questions about open data intermediaries in developing countries as part of a World Wide Web Foundation project, funded by Canada’s IDRC, titled Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries. The research team examined 32 case studies from developing countries in Africa and Asia, with a particular focus on how open data intermediaries connect data providers to end-users.

An open data intermediary is someone positioned at a point in a data supply chain that incorporates an open dataset, who is located between two others in the supply chain, and who facilitates the use of open data that may otherwise not have been the case.

What roles are open data intermediaries playing?

The research team report that data intermediaries are undertaking a wide range of functions.  As well as connecting data providers (for example, governments) with those who can benefit by using data or data-driven products, intermediaries are helping to articulate demand for data, creating and repackaging data, and creating novel applications. In Nepal for instance, intermediaries play a range of roles, from running the government open data portal, to translating complex data sets into formats that are easily understood by a population that is largely offline and suffers from low literacy levels.

How are intermediaries connecting data providers to end-users?

To answer this question, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s social model, in particular his concept of species of capital, was used as a lens. According to Bourdieu, capital is not only economic or material. We use other symbolic forms of capital like social capital (e.g. friends and memberships) or cultural capital (e.g. competencies and qualifications) in our social interactions.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that most open data intermediaries use their technical capital to connect to data providers (97%). However, to fulfil their role of not only connecting to data providers but of facilitating the use of open data, open data intermediaries require multiple forms of capital. And because no single intermediary necessarily has all the types of capital to link effectively to users, multiple intermediaries with complementary configurations of capital are more likely to connect data providers and users.

Intermediaries ModelA model of layers of intermediaries connecting a data source with users  

In India, for instance, as well as focusing on technical work, an NGO also holds regular workshops with journalists as a method of reaching citizens. In South Africa, the researchers found two intermediaries in a single supply chain linking government data to end-users. The first intermediary uses their social capital to access the data from a closed government database, and their technical capital to clean and repackage the data. The second intermediary uses its cultural capital to connect the repackaged open data with a community of users, in this case, university administrators. Both of these examples show how the use of both technical and other capital is required to link suppliers with end users effectively, and that multiple intermediaries are likely to exist in each supply chain.

How are open data intermediaries funded?

Of the 32 intermediaries studied, 72% can be described as not-for profit and, as a consequence, rely on donor funding to sustain their operations. This has significant implications for future sustainability.

What are some of the key conclusions and implications of the study?

  • Intermediaries are playing a critical role in making data truly useful.
  • The presence of multiple intermediaries in an ecosystem may increase the probability of use (and impact) because no single intermediary is likely to possess all the types of capital required to unlock the full value of the transaction between the provider and the end user.
  • Working either alone or in collaboration with others, intermediaries must go beyond technical capital to unlock the benefits of open data – using social, political or economic capital too.
  • Governments would do well to engage with a broad spectrum of intermediaries, and not simply focus on intermediaries who possess only the technical capital required to interpret and repackage open government data.
  • Given that intermediaries are presently largely donor funded, in the short term, funders should ask whether possible grantees possess all the types of capital required not only to re-use open data but to connect open data to specific user groups in order to ensure the use and impact of open data.
  • In the medium term, different funding models for intermediaries may need to be explored, or the sustainability of civically-minded open data initiatives could be at risk.


ODintermediariesOpen Data Intermediaries in Developing Countries

By François van Schalkwyk, Michael Caňares, Sumandro Chattapadhyay & Alexander Andrason



Note: This project is part of the ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries’ (ODDC) research funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (through grant 107075). The Web Foundation is a partner of the Open Data for Development network.

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