THE Piper PA-31 Navajo took off into the sultry Miami morning and streaked southward toward the Caribbean. High over Haiti, the cameras inside began to snap.
Behind this reconnaissance mission was, of all things, a financial institution: the World Bank, symbol of globalization and, to many, the hubris of wealthy nations.
But this was hardly some clandestine operation. On the contrary, the aerial photographs taken that January morning in 2010, shortly after a powerful earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince, were soon uploaded to the Web for all to see, along with an invitation to help World Bank specialists assess the damage and figure out how to aid Haiti.
The appeal marked a radical departure for the often close-to-the-vest World Bank, which, like its brother, the International Monetary Fund, has been called everything from arrogant to inept. The World Bank, you see, wants the world to know that it is finally opening up, albeit slowly and, at times, a bit painfully.
The I.M.F. has grabbed the hot headlines lately, having become a tabloid fixture after its leader, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was accused of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in a Midtown Manhattan hotel. That allegation began unraveling on Friday, when prosecutors themselves questioned the victim’s credibility. Not that Mr. Strauss-Kahn is going back to his old job; last week, the fund named Christine Lagarde, the French finance minister, as its next leader.
But while the I.M.F. is busy with scandal and the debt crisis now shaking Europe, officials at the World Bank’s headquarters here are confronting some existential questions, including the big one: What exactly are we doing here?
The World Bank’s traditional role has been to finance specific projects that foster economic development, whereas the I.M.F.’s goal is to safeguard the global monetary system. But many people, particularly in the developing world, have long questioned whether the economic prescriptions that these two lofty institutions hand down from Washington — essentially: liberalize, privatize and deregulate — have done anything but advance the interests of wealthy nations like the United States. That the I.M.F. is now championing deeply unpopular austerity measures for Greece, where street protests continued last week, only sharpens that point.
So it might come as a surprise that the president of the World Bank, Robert B. Zoellick, a career diplomat and member of the Republican foreign-policy elite, argues that the most valuable currency of the World Bank isn’t its money — it is its information.
Created in 1944 and, by custom, headed by an American, the World Bank initially helped finance the reconstruction of war-torn Europe. Since then, it has extended many trillions in loans for a wide variety of projects, be they institutions like schools and hospitals, infrastructure like roads or, controversially, environmentally unfriendly projects like coal-fired power plants and hydroelectric dams. Along the way the World Bank, like the I.M.F., has tinkered with entire economies, sometimes with disastrous results.
Yet the Haiti flights — which cost about the same as a World Bank report — were the harbinger of a quiet revolution now gripping this aloof institution.
More than 600 engineers in 21 countries analyzed the data collected over Haiti, and their conclusions — essentially what to rebuild and where — have since been used by the Haitian government, relief organizations, companies and myriad others.
“It was like the cowboy West in terms of the boundaries of the project and what we were able to do,” says Stuart P. D. Gill, a computational cosmologist and project coordinator for the bank’s disaster reduction and recovery labs.
Long regarded as a windowless ivory tower, the World Bank is opening its vast vault of information. True, the bank still lends roughly $170 billion annually. But it is increasingly competing for influence and power with Wall Street, national governments and smaller regional development banks, who have as much or more money to offer. It is no longer the only game in town.
And so Mr. Zoellick, 57, is wielding knowledge — lots of it. For more than a year, the bank has been releasing its prized data sets, currently giving public access to more than 7,000 that were previously available only to some 140,000 subscribers — mostly governments and researchers, who pay to gain access to it.
Those data sets contain all sorts of information about the developing world, whether workaday economic statistics — gross domestic product, consumer price inflation and the like — or arcana like how many women are breast-feeding their children in rural Peru.
It is a trove unlike anything else in the world, and, it turns out, highly valuable. For whatever its accuracy or biases, this data essentially defines the economic reality of billions of people and is used in making policies and decisions that have an enormous impact on their lives.
Mr. Zoellick says the bank’s newfound openness is part of a push to embrace competition, both internally and externally, as it tries to reduce poverty and foster economic development.
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.
“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.”
ROBERT ZOELLICK folds his long, lean frame onto a couch in his 12th-floor office in the World Bank headquarters.
When a visitor asks where she should sit, Mr. Zoellick pats his leg and says, “Anywhere but here.” Then he smiles, pats the cushion beside him, and adds, “Or here.” He then points next door to the I.M.F. headquarters.
It is a joke — not particularly P.C. — in reference to Mr. Strauss-Kahn and the legal maelstrom up in New York.
Joking aside, Mr. Zoellick speaks with an ambassadorial gravitas — not surprising, given that he spent most of his career as a United States diplomat.
Mr. Zoellick came to the job in July 2007, replacing Paul D. Wolfowitz, who resigned after a long string of controversies then ended in a scandal about his relationship with an employee.
A lawyer by training, Mr. Zoellick has made the rounds in Washington, particularly in Republican circles. In the 1980s, at the Treasury Department and the White House, he advised President George H. W. Bush. In the 1990s, he worked at the mortgage giant Fannie Mae, today a potent symbol of all that went wrong in the mortgage business.
Later, as the United States trade representative for President George W. Bush, he was a vocal advocate of free trade. Later still, at the State Department, under Condoleezza Rice, he advocated the war with Iraq and was viewed as an architect of the administration’s China policy. He then cooled his heels briefly as a managing director at Goldman Sachs.
Now, he is essentially telling the World Bank’s 10,000 employees that he no longer considers their institution to be at the center of the development universe.
“As opposed to some imperious bureaucracy in Washington, we’re making things open and accessible to people,” he says. “That makes for better performance, it makes for a more open system, it makes for people having a different attitude about the World Bank.”
To some World Bank insiders, this amounts to a declaration of war on their decades-old culture, a war that began when Mr. Zoellick arrived and instituted a daily 8:30 a.m. meeting of senior executives — “a shock to some of the people involved,” he recalls.
“It’s not been bloody, but it’s not been easy, either,” says Sanjay Pradhan, vice president of the World Bank Institute, a unit that advises and counsels governments, and that Mr. Zoellick has designated as his strike force in the fight for greater transparency.
He is not the first World Bank leader to struggle to match its practices to its principles. The bank, after all, has had an open-information policy for four decades. James D. Wolfensohn, who ran the bank from 1995 to 2005 and was beloved by employees, even called it the “Knowledge Bank,” and during his tenure, it spent $280 million to improve the way it shares information with its staff, client governments and organizations.
But by its own account, the World Bank failed to embed that concept of openness in its own culture, despite significant improvements in technology and tools for sharing information.
“Senior management can announce grand strategies and reorganizations, but it must rely on middle management at the bank to execute them,” says David Ian Shaman, a former World Bank official. “Middle management is composed of fiefdoms that are preserved by maintaining the status quo and so has little incentive to implement change.”
In a book titled “The World Bank Unveiled: Inside the Revolutionary Struggle for Transparency,” Mr. Shaman chronicled his battle during the Wolfensohn era to webcast things like internal policy debates. Bank insiders worried that his Web service, called B-SPAN, would open the bank to criticism and reduce its authority.
“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.
In 2004, for instance, B-SPAN was initially barred from taping a speech given by a development economist, Hernando de Soto, at an event to inaugurate a new policy on information access.
“I was told it would be too controversial,” Mr. Shaman recalls. The video ultimately was made but, like B-SPAN itself, it was quietly mothballed when he left the bank a year later.
DAVID ROODMAN, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has had his own struggles with the World Bank. But as a researcher, he says he understands reluctance among World Bank officials to throw open the doors. The bank’s researchers work hard to collect data. If it appears online, they may lose a chance to mine it for their own research papers, and thus lose money and prestige.
“It’s the capital basis of your world — and if you share what you’ve done and people find mistakes, what’s in it for you?” Mr. Roodman says.
People outside the World Bank are eager for its information. Its newly released data — from economic stats to numbers on landmines — has attracted more than 4.5 million unique views. Indeed, more people come to its Web site looking for data than anything else.
“I’m astonished by the number of people apparently just waiting for our data to become free,” says Shaida Badiee, director of the bank’s economic development data group. “I had no idea how big a deal this was going to be.”
Mr. Zoellick says that he understands his employees’ worries but that opening analysis and research to public scrutiny will lead to fewer mistakes. “There will be, I’m sure over a series of years, bad stories that come out as a result of this, and if you’re part of the bad stories, it’s probably not going to be something you’re going to like,” he says. “But my view is that it is far better for the institution and its health to be open.”
One day last spring, in the bank’s sunlit atrium, Mr. Zoellick’s team doled out prizes for a contest called Apps for Development. Software developers worldwide had submitted Web applications based on the bank’s data.
The atrium is the bank’s agora, home to shows and presentations, and people often arrive in national dress for big events.
But that day, the most exotic people were 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.
One finalist was an app to help pregnant mothers use their mobile phones to find World Bank data about maternal health in their countries and languages. Another was a game designed to increase awareness of deforestation.
Mr. van Cappelle says the contest encouraged people to make sense of the bank’s information. “There’s a lot of data out there right now locked up in databases,” he says, “and I think it requires apps like this one and some other apps that have been developed to unlock that prison.”
The World Bank promoted the contest partly to remind its own employees that the old barriers are coming down.
“You know, we could have had a hundred smart people sitting here for a year and never come up with a lot of that stuff,” Mr. Zoellick says. The bank, he says, is essentially widening the circle of people it can brainstorm with.
Having created models for open-sourcing and crowd-sourcing, the bank is now moving toward mash-ups. A new Mapping for Results program offers interactive maps pinpointing locations of almost 3,000 bank projects in more than 16,000 places worldwide. Links open up pages with information about each project, and users can add overlays that show, say, where infant mortality is highest to see whether the bank’s work in those areas matches the need.
The program is sensitive because it involves releasing data provided by client governments and others, but the hope is that it will prompt these parties to link their own data on economic and social development to the site or otherwise make it available.
THE Swedish government, a big public supporter of development projects, has followed suit with a prototype, a Web site with information about where it spends its aid money and the impact its spending has had. “The goal is to achieve as effective poverty reduction as possible,” the Swedish government said this year in announcing the effort. “To achieve this goal, development cooperation must be opened up to transparency and ideas from others.”
Next week, Kenya, too, will open a Web site giving access to data that, until now, has existed largely in books on the shelves of various ministries. Software developers are already playing with it — seeking patterns like whether there is any correlation between the government’s spending on schools and students’ test scores, literacy and matriculation.
“The World Bank has made it easier with what it is doing with open data,” says Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information.
The broader release of such data will enable more “scientific” policy-making, cut down on corruption in Kenya and engage more people in government by empowering them with knowledge they can use to challenge political leaders, he says.
Asked if there would be resistance to public dissemination of government data, Dr. Ndemo said transparency was inevitable.
Information is valuable, he says, and people will find a way to get it: “This is one of those things, like mobile phones and the Internet, that you cannot control.”