Influencing the production of public data

In the latest installment of my Innovators podcast, which ran while I was away on vacation, I spoke with Steven Willmott of 3scale, one of several companies in the emerging business of third-party API management. As more organizations get into the game of providing APIs to their online data, there’s a growing need for help in the design and management of those APIs.

By way of demonstration, 3scale is providing an unofficial API to some of the datasets offered by the United Nations. The UN data at http://data.un.org, while browseable and downloadable, is not programmatically accessible. If you visit 3scale’s demo at www.undata-api.org/ you can sign up for an access key, ask for available datasets — mostly, so far, from the World Health Organization (see below) — and then query them.

The query capability is rather limited. For a given measure, like Births by caesarean section (percent), you can select subsets by country or by year, but you can’t query or order by values. And you can’t make correlations across tables in one query.

It’s just a demo, of course. If 3scale wanted to invest more effort, a more robust query system could be built. The fact that such a system can be built by an unofficial intermediary, rather than by the provider of the data, is quite interesting.

As I watch this data publication meme spread, here’s something that interests me even more. These efforts don’t really reflect the Web 2.0 values of engagement and participation to the extent they could. We’re now very focused on opening up flexible means of access to data. But the conversation is still framed in terms of a producer/consumer relationship that isn’t itself much discussed.

At the end of this entry you’ll find a list of WHO datasets. Here’s one: Community and traditional health workers density (per 10,000 population). What kinds of questions do we think we might try to answer by counting this category of worker? What kinds of questions can’t we try to answer using the datasets WHO is collecting? How might we therefore want to try to influence the WHO’s data-gathering efforts, and those of other public health organizations?

“Give us the data” is an easy slogan to chant. And there’s no doubt that much good will come from poking through what we are given. But we also need to have ideas about what we want the data for, and communicate those ideas to the providers who are gathering it on our behalf.


Adolescent fertility rate
Adult literacy rate (percent)
Gross national income per capita (PPP international $)
Net primary school enrolment ratio female (percent)
Net primary school enrolment ratio male (percent)
Population (in thousands) total
Population annual growth rate (percent)
Population in urban areas (percent)
Population living below the poverty line (percent living on less than US$1 per day)
Population median age (years)
Population proportion over 60 (percent)
Population proportion under 15 (percent)
Registration coverage of births (percent)
Registration coverage of deaths (percent)
Total fertility rate (per woman)
Antenatal care coverage – at least four visits (percent)
Antiretroviral therapy coverage among HIV-infected pregnant women for PMTCT (percent)
Antiretroviral therapy coverage among people with advanced HIV infections (percent)
Births attended by skilled health personnel (percent)
Births by caesarean section (percent)
Children aged 6-59 months who received vitamin A supplementation (percent)
Children aged less than 5 years sleeping under insecticide-treated nets (percent)
Children aged less than 5 years who received any antimalarial treatment for fever (percent)
Children aged less than 5 years with ARI symptoms taken to facility (percent)
Children aged less than 5 years with diarrhoea receiving ORT (percent)
Contraceptive prevalence (percent)
Neonates protected at birth against neonatal tetanus (PAB) (percent)
One-year-olds immunized with MCV
One-year-olds immunized with three doses of Hepatitis B (HepB3) (percent)
One-year-olds immunized with three doses of Hib (Hib3) vaccine (percent)
One-year-olds immunized with three doses of diphtheria tetanus toxoid and pertussis (DTP3) (percent)
Tuberculosis detection rate under DOTS (percent)
Tuberculosis treatment success under DOTS (percent)
Women who have had PAP smear (percent)
Women who have had mammography (percent)
Community and traditional health workers density (per 10 000 population)
Dentistry personnel density (per 10 000 population)
Environment and public health workers density (per 10 000 population)
External resources for health as percentage of total expenditure on health
General government expenditure on health as percentage of total expenditure on health
General government expenditure on health as percentage of total government expenditure
Hospital beds (per 10 000 population)
Laboratory health workers density (per 10 000 population)
Number of community and traditional health workers
Number of dentistry personnel
Number of environment and public health workers
Number of laboratory health workers
Number of nursing and midwifery personnel
Number of other health service providers
Number of pharmaceutical personnel
Nursing and midwifery personnel density (per 10 000 population)
Other health service providers density (per 10 000 population)
Out-of-pocket expenditure as percentage of private expenditure on health
Per capita total expenditure on health (PPP int. $)
Per capita total expenditure on health at average exchange rate (US$
Pharmaceutical personnel density (per 10 000 population)
Physicians density (per 10 000 population)
Private expenditure on health as percentage of total expenditure on health
Private prepaid plans as percentage of private expenditure on health
Ratio of health management and support workers to health service providers
Ratio of nurses and midwives to physicians
Social security expenditure on health as percentage of general government expenditure on health
Total expenditure on health as percentage of gross domestic product