How open data can increase transparency in the aid sector

Mapping hazards in communities provide data that are used in disaster risk reduction plans in Haiti. How can aid organizations, from civil society groups to government, apply open data principles to their own activities? Photo by: S. Pérez / ECHO / CC BY-ND

The International Aid Transparency Initiative is helping translate the data revolution into increased accountability and better coordination within the aid sector. But can standards alone push civil society organizations, donors and governments to open up?

Devex spoke to several experts during last month’s International Open Data Conference in Ottawa, Canada, to understand how aid organizations, from civil society groups to government agencies, can apply open data principles to their own activities.

Quantity vs. quality

The need for more open data is often assimilated into the need for more data. While the issue of data gaps is a pressing one, donor countries may be facing a different kind of challenge.

“People are talking a lot about data standards, they’re talking about opening more and more data, which I think is completely misleading,” Aniket Bhushan, assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, told Devex. “I don’t want … 200 data sets on a topic. What you really need is one good data set that everyone can use and everyone can go to.”

Bhushan, who has spent several years analyzing Canada’s foreign policy data, said the increased amount of data sets made available by the government over the years hasn’t necessarily made the data more reliable or error-free. These problems actually get magnified when flawed open data is used in turn by third-party applications and tools. Some of the existing challenges also lie around refining the data — should a road that has been built to increase access to a clinic count as health or infrastructure data?

“We’re still very much at the data deluge state than the meaningful stage,” Bhushan said.

Making data usable

Turning open data into meaningful information now requires specific technical skills, as working with large and complex data sets often means having to use APIs or code new applications.

“The format has liberated all of the data, the standard has made presumably the data more usable, especially for the techie and geeky types. But I would argue that it has also complicated and convoluted things to some extent,” Bhushan told Devex, adding that many civil society organizations lack the in-house capacity and resources to process data. And even when they do, they sometimes fail to address the real needs of data users.

“The big task of the open data community is to do a better job of making tools that are not just cool to look at, but are actually meeting real business needs and processes,” said Dustin Homer, engagement and partnerships manager at Development Gateway, a nonprofit that delivers information solutions to development implementers.

Having worked with a variety of governments and organizations to create information management systems — its Aid Management Platform has been implemented in over 25 countries — Development Gateway found that data was often not being shared within large organizations or between ministries, or was left unused by staff.

“You can make all the information available, you can put it all in one place, but then there’s a lot more that needs to be dealt with to make sure that people actually use it,” Homer told Devex. “Whether it’s a government user or a citizen user, we have to make the path to action much more clear, otherwise it’s information for information’s sake.”

Aid transparency is political

One may think of data gaps as an issue pertaining to the “global south.” But when it comes to aid transparency, policy is already affecting what type of data can be collected in donor countries. Bhushan, for instance, has been trying to run a comparative analysis of data on results-based financing. But while he’s been able to manipulate data from the U.K. Department for International Development, he’s “miles away” from analyzing data from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development in the same way.

“[Canada] made a strategic decision that they didn’t want to go as far as the U.K. did, or what the U.S. has done with in the case of the aid data. They simply felt that it was cheaper, faster, safer and lower risk,” he explained.

Tracking money flows from donor agencies to implementing organizations has also been difficult, because the data needs to be open on both ends, Bhushan said. Whereas all CSOs working with DfID are now mandated to publish their data to IATI’s platform, only two Canadian CSOs are currently doing so. One area where data was seriously lacking, he said, was Canada’s signature Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Initiative. Although the government has renewed its commitment to the initiative with a second round of funding, the data concerning the first phase is still being withheld.

“The data is very important, because it would be one of the most definitive ways of us knowing whether we’ve actually spent the full amount of money or not,” he pointed out.

Should your organization take the leap?

Beyond contributing to greater transparency of the aid sector, CSOs can find many unsuspected benefits in opening up their data. One organization based in the Netherlands, Cordaid, took the leap in 2013 by complying with IATI and publishing data sets on its own website.

“One of the biggest concerns when this whole process started was privacy concerns, competition concerns, backlash, the idea of some journalists coming in and then exposing all of our secrets and skeletons in the closet,” Cordaid Open Data Coordinator Roderick Besseling told Devex.

None of that has happened, he said. Instead, Cordaid is using its data to communicate its activities to a variety of stakeholders, including partner organizations, researchers and donor agencies. The organization is equally transparent about projects that weren’t as successful as anticipated — Besseling doesn’t use the term “failing” because “failing assumes that you didn’t learn anything from it” — to demonstrate its capacity for resilience and progress.

Cordaid made a point of going beyond IATI compliance and using the data internally as well. According to Besseling, this has allowed staff to become much more aware of what their colleagues are doing.

“One of the biggest beneficiaries of becoming open and saving your information in this standard is the organization itself. It will make the organization more efficient, more transparent and accountable, but the efficiency will also increase faster,” Besseling said. “The biggest mistake an organization can do is only become IATI compliant and then just publish the files to the registry.”

Cordaid is now working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to assess the feasibility of replacing traditional reporting tools by IATI data. Besseling also hopes to improve Cordaid’s own data platform and include new tools to make the data more flexible and accessible to a variety of users.

Beyond open data

A growing source of concern among IODC participants was that the aid community may be becoming too focused on the questions of how to achieve the data revolution and how to become more open. Several of them said it was time to ask instead who and what the data is for.

“It’s important that open data gets framed properly as being a medium or a tool, and not the end by itself.” Besseling told Devex. “I think open data in international development is really demanding a paradigm shift about how the whole international sector works.”

Others worried the focus on open data might divert the attention away from pressing issues.

“Transparency and accountability on development is really just a subset of what is happening in development more generally, but on this level [Canada is] getting good points by hosting international seminars and conferences,” Bhushan said. “I don’t know how many people have talked about the fact that our aid spending is down by more than half a billion dollars.”

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About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada, covering international issues and cities through a social lens. Her work has appeared in WIRED, the Guardian, Le Monde Afrique, Jeune Afrique, the Correspondent ,and Devex.