The open data revolution comes to aid

The logo of the High Level Forum, hanging on the side of the conference centre

This blog post first appeared on the aidinfo site.

More than two thousand delegates have gathered today in Busan, South Korea, for the fourth installment of a succession of meetings aimed at making aid more effective.

There has been significant progress since the meeting in Accra in 2008 towards improving transparency of aid. This is important because it’s a pre-requisite for achieving all the aid effectiveness principles. Jamie Drummond from the ONE campaign explains this very well in the Huffington Post.

The challenge is to provide information to people at country level. Our existing aid information systems are mainly designed to enable donors to share information with each other, not to meet the needs of people in developing countries.

But the information needs at country level are hugely diverse, both between and within developing countries. Within governments, the information needs of the finance ministry are different from the needs of line ministries. The needs of parliamentarians, civil society, media and citizens are all different again. It is impractical for donors to try to meet the needs of every niche interest with their own subset of the data in a particular format.

뜻이 있는 곳에 길이 있다  (where there’s a will there’s a way)

Here’s the technical bit: the way to serve all these different needs for information without massive duplication and bureaucracy is to separate the data from the interface. An open, standardised, detailed, shared data layer can support a whole range of different applications, tailored to specific users.

That is why it is so exciting that the open data revolution is coming to aid. In 2008, in a side-meeting in Accra, a coalition of willing donors, developing countries, foundations and NGOs made a declaration which launched the International Aid Transparency Initiative. A lot of that data is now being published – countries accounting for nearly half of global aid are now publishing through IATI, and that proportion will grow in the coming months.

If you are in Busan this week, and you want to know how IATI works, the IATI secretariat will be doing a briefing at 5pm on Wednesday, in room KW202 (I’m making a guest appearance to show off some beta software, so do come along and laugh at me when it doesn’t work).

천릿길은 한 걸음부터 (A 1000-li journey starts with one step)

Transparency by itself does not lead to more accountability, less waste, or better coordination. That happens when people are able to use the information. The extent to which they are able to do so depends on their context, including the political and administrative climate. Open data won’t automatically make organisations responsive, but will greatly reduce the difficulty and cost for citizens of taking the data and turning it into something meaningful and useful.

With an open aid data platform now in place, huge opportunities are being opened. We can use the standard to introduce traceability of aid as it passes from organisation to organisation. We can improve the quality and detail of the data that is collected and publish it through these systems.

Reporting of aid data should be not just by donors but by NGOs, private sector implementing agencies and foundations. The mechanisms for sharing information can be extended beyond aid to other kinds of resources for poverty reduction.  We can add detailed geo-coding, to enable aid projects and programmes to be mapped, and better coordinated.  We can begin to compare across aid programmes and across countries. We can mix aid information with other data from other sources.

The twenty four donors who have signed IATI should be congratulated for their efforts to make data available. The payoff from that effort will come when we all start to use the data to understand aid better: to see what is working and what is not, and to hold the aid system to account, so leading to improvements in the effectiveness of aid. IATI removes the most significant barriers to entry for a wide range of diverse applications.

The next step is to nurture and encourage an ecosystem of civil society groups, parliamentarians, researchers, think tanks, academics, governments, private sector organisation, media and hackers, all accessing and using the information in different ways, and using this as a platform to push for improvements in how resources for poverty reduction are used. The new Open Aid Partnership is an example of an initiative of this kind: the door is now open for many more.

We can now look forward to the day when we take for granted the ubiquitous availability of aid data. We will soon forget that it was ever a struggle to find out about aid projects in a developing country, or to follow the money through NGOs and implementing partners. Having laid these important foundations, we will be able to move on to much more important and exciting innovations which support people in developing countries to use and repurpose this information and use it to change their world.

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