Open school data and quality education for all: Can citizen access to information make a difference?

Muriel Poisson, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO)

In many countries, important statistical information about schools, which was previously only in the hands of public administrations, is gradually moving into the public sphere. In fact, research by IIEP-UNESCO has identified more than 50 countries where open school data initiatives exist. Some of these have developed in large and highly populated countries, such as India where the disclosure of school-level information started as early as in the mid-1990s. Experience shows that the quantity and type of information shared with the public tends to increase over time. Open school data can include everything from school budget, number of teachers and their qualifications, availability and condition of facilities, to student learning outcomes – often gradually moving from indicators related to school inputs to indicators related more to school processes and finally, school outputs.

However, the impact of this phenomenon on education systems, and more specifically on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal for equitable and inclusive quality education and lifelong learning for all (SDG 4), has not been systematically investigated. For example, what data are of most interest for users? How can information be presented in an accessible and easy to understand format? What incentives can help people use the information in a way that will improve education quality? How can use of data lead to more accountability in the transfer and use of financial, material and human resources? Finally, what are the risks attached to public access to information in education systems?

Tackling key questions on open school data

To answer some of these questions, we carried out six case studies in Asia and the Pacific, focusing on country-specific uses of open school data at primary and secondary levels. Each case study analyzed variables such as the type of data made available, the level of data accessibility, and its use by different stakeholders, drawing from a survey of some 250 school-level actors in each country. In our subsequent synthesis report Open school data: what planners need to know, we argue in favour of formulating and supporting open school data initiatives from a user perspective, and describe a planning cycle that leads towards well-identified impacts, e.g. improved quality of EMIS information, better school planning, or empowered communities.

In more practical terms, IIEP synthesis describes successful approaches such as the MySchool project in Australia or the DepEd Transparency Boards in the Philippines, which succeeded to share data in fruitful and accessible ways over time, combining offline and online channels, and making use of summary tables, graphics, icons, posters, and other media for maximum outreach. It also presents how civil society organizations such as Transparency International Bangladesh developed successful capacity building activities in illiterate contexts, building for instance on mothers’ gatherings. More broadly, the synthesis shares testimonies from the ground, revealing how information disclosure can be a deterrent to corrupt practices, such as inflating student numbers in the case of Indonesia.

What are the risks?

Building on the responses from our field survey, the synthesis report also reviews the variety of risks associated with introducing open school data initiatives. For example, many respondents mentioned the over-simplification of complex issues, including one respondent from Australia who said, “Schools are complex places that are hard to capture through any data sets.” Other risks explored include the misinterpretation of data, school competition and stigmatization, elite capture, power imbalances, data privacy, and even security issues in fragile contexts.

In the book, readers can find mitigation measures for each of these risks. For example, concentrating on school gain and growth rather than annual results, or determining a socio-educational index, such as the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) put together by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) which allows users to make comparisons between schools based on their ICSEA scores.

Moving forward with our eight key principles

Building on all of this research, we have formulated eight key principles for developing open school data policies:

  1. Design open school data as part of the planning cycle
  2. Promote accountability at the core of open school data
  3. Give priority to data that can drive positive change
  4. Consider open school data as a public good, building on EMIS
  5. Present and share data in multiple, creative ways
  6. Ensure that the public knows how to use open school data
  7. Make open school data “actionable”
  8. Address ethical risks up-front

By considering these, open school data initiatives will be in a better place to contribute to substantial changes in power dynamics within the education sector.

Learn more:

All the documents produced as part of the research are available free of charge on IIEP-UNESCO’s platform on Ethics and corruption in education called ETICO.