Recovering from a bout of the flu, I’m still suffering from a sore throat, bodyache, and not-so-unusual for me, insomnia. When normally confronted with insomnia, I turn to the web for reading materials. This morning, I came across a great article that really helps crystallize some ideas that have been running around in my head recently.

From an article in the New York Times, we learn that  for more than a year, The World Bank has been releasing its prized data sets to the public. These efforts are currently giving the public access to more than 7,000 data sets that were previously available only to some 140,000 subscribers — mostly governments and researchers, who pay to gain access. The effort is spearheaded by Robert Zoellic, the Bank’s president and a career US diplomat.

Mr. Zoellick is driven by the belief that it is information and not the bank’s $170 billion lending portfolio that is its greatest asset. Mr. Zoellick is driving efforts to a new kind of openness in a ‘push to embrace competition’.

This is new territory for an institution long regarded as highly-secretive:

In short, the World Bank, long synonymous with Washington elitism, is taking steps to “democratize development economics,” to borrow a phrase from Mr. Zoellick, who is leading what many insiders regard as an assault on the bank’s power and prestige.

The desire to drive this reform comes from an understanding that open data sets allow for collaboration and innovation in new ways, especially as technology makes it easier to tap into and analyze The World Bank’s stores of information:

“We do not have a monopoly on the answers,” he said in a speech at Georgetown University last fall. “For too long, prescriptions have flowed one way.”

How an organization treats information is very much a part of its culture and in this case:

“The cultural norm of the bank is to hoard information, and when it does release information, it is either perfect or choreographed for delivery to a specific audience,” Mr. Shaman says.

This move toward openness at The World Bank is marked by innovative new programs such “Apps for Development”, a contest that seeks to engage software developers in creating web applications that tap into the power of the banks information: 

… young developers like Frank van Cappelle, a Dutch national who is a doctoral candidate at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia. His app, StatPlanet, lets people explore more than 3,000 World Bank economic indicators with interactive maps and graphics. It won the $15,000 first prize.

A welcome sign of change in culture at The World Bank with lessons for all organizations on how to tap the unrecognised potential of data.