Open data for transparency: Key to economic development

Open data portals can provide diverse benefits to governments and businesses. They can contribute in evidence-based policy making. Data-based reporting by journalists would enable the government to be more transparent and responsible

The Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS) on June 22 released a data portal called NepStat. The inspiration for developing this database stemmed from Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED), a free data aggregation website, provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, United States. Among others, FRED is widely used by students and professors in US universities for teaching and research purposes, particularly in economics.

NepStat aims to achieve the same for Nepali universities, by providing the general public with one location to openly access more than 1,000 Nepal time series data representing the full range of development-related disciplines including economics, agriculture, environment, health, banking, insurance, and finance.

Similar to FRED, NepStat focuses more on economics, banking, and finance. However, in the next phase, NepStat aims to cover not only all other remaining sectors but also provide daily, monthly and yearly data, wherever possible, for all provinces and districts of Nepal. In addition to downloading data, NepStat users can also create, download, and share data visualisations, embed data visualisations in their websites or blogs, and compare data visualisations for up to five-time series data. It is an irony that Nepal’s central bank, which is responsible for creating such a data portal to promote financial and economic literacy, has paid no heed so far to this.

Given this background, the question obviously arises why we need another data portal when there are plenty of data portals that focus solely on Nepal. There are at least five reasons why we believe NepStat will prove to be immensely useful to a wide range of audience.

First, there is no data portal in Nepal that provides development-focused data and related data visualisation at a frequency higher than a year and covers a long period. NepStat overcomes this limitation by providing long-term data at a higher frequency – daily and monthly. For example, there are so many stock-market related data portals in Nepal that provide daily data for Nepal Stock Exchange Index (NEPSE) but none of these provides daily data for the said index going back to 1995. Availability of such long-time series data is helpful to both researchers and stock market investors to understand the trend in the secondary market.

Second, there is no data portal in Nepal that allows users to embed interactive data visualisation in their blogs or websites. This is an important feature suitable for digital journalists and all those bloggers who want to use data to tell stories; it saves time spent on collecting, processing and graphing the data. With the interactive feature in hand, users can just focus on their bigger questions that they are trying to answer through data.

Third, it allows users to compare up to five-time series data. This is also an important feature because it allows users to simultaneously compare the data not only from the same source but also from different sources, which are not normally comparable unless a massive amount of time is spent on compiling, cleaning and harmonising the data because in most cases the data from official government sources are in non-machine-readable formats like pdf or image. A good example is where users want to visualise the relationship between short-term interest rate like interbank rate (sourced from Nepal Rastra Bank) and stock market index (like NEPSE which is sourced from Nepal Stock Exchange) or like international remittances (sourced from NRB) and balance of payments situation (sourced from NRB).

Fourth, it allows the users to change the units of variables and aggregate the high-frequency data to low-frequency. For example, if users are interested in finding the consumer price inflation rate, they can just change the units of consumer price index to per cent change, which gives the month-over-month inflation rate or to per cent change from a year ago, giving the year-over-year inflation rate. Additionally, users can convert the high-frequency data to low-frequency using one of the three default methods provided in NepStat.

These are important tools for teachers to help their students understand how macroeconomic variables like consumer inflation rate and economic growth rate are constructed in the real world.

Fifth, the data are updated on monthly basis concurrent to the release of monthly data by NRB, Nepal Stock Exchange and other official government sources. This saves users from spending their time on incorporating revisions and changes to the data because most of the macroeconomic variables published at high frequency are first released as estimates and are revised back when new information is available.

Given these important features, data portals provide diverse benefits to governments, businesses and civil society. For example, data-based reporting by journalists would enable the government to be more transparent and responsible. Additionally, 24/7 availability of data to global researchers would foster research on Nepal, thereby contributing to evidence-based policy making, which is the key to economic development in developing countries like Nepal.

Joshi, Pant, and Dongol, PhD, are economists, and Shrestha is a student of economics