Yesterday, the World Bank announced the good news that it is making all of its statistical information available freely to anyone who has access to the Internet. As World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick commented, “I believe 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. They are now easily accessible on the Web for all users, and can be used to create new apps for development”. The database includes some 331 of the World Development Indicators (WDI) covering 209 countries from 1960 to 2008 translated into Spanish, French and Arabic.
However, this reveals what is very much a ‘World Bank’ view of the world. The data are only partial, and should never be seen in some ways as ‘hard facts’. There is a real danger that sources such as this may be used uncritically to give misleading views of international development. Take education for example. There are only 5 indicators that show up when a search on “Find an Indicator” is done for “education” among the 331 indicators made available in this way:
- public spending on education as a % of GDP
- public spending on education as a % of government expenditure
- ratio of female to male enrollments in tertiary education
- ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary education
- trained teachers in primary education as a % of total teachers
However, using “Topics”, one can find a further 24 indicators about education, and this provides a much more balanced view of global education. On delving deeper, it is possible to access a still more detailed set of data from the databank itself. Here, there are some 1247 different time series on educational data, and they can also be downloaded for free. This is indeed a valuable resource.
Another problematic feature of the main public database is its maps. At first sight, these could be seen to be helpful visualisations of the data, but they are fundamentally misleading, because they use proportional symbols to represent % data – the higher the percentage, the larger the circle. While such symbols are fine for absolute data (such as total GNI), they are inappropriate for showing ratios such as percentages for a spatial territory (such as % enrollment in secondary education). For such data, it is much more appropriate to use choropleth maps that shade the areas in different densities.
These criticisms having been noted, we should applaud the World Bank for sharing its statistical understanding of the world in such an accessible way. It tells us as much about the Bank as it does about development.