Friday, 17 January 2014

The Road to 2015 is Paved with Open Data

This blog, by David Hall-Matthews, managing director at Publish What You Fund is about the data revolution, specifically concerning aid transparency. This is the 17th post in ODI's blog series onWhat kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?This post is also a part of the Wikiprogress series on Data and Statistics and Post-2015

Transparency is a key pillar of sustainable development: an essential piece of the puzzle to enable effectiveness, accountability and social change. And in recent years, information on aid spending has slowly become more available and open.
The basic principle that aid information should be publicly available is now accepted as an essential component of international development. Nowhere has that been seen more prominently than the discussions around the post-2015 Development Goals.

We have two years to create new goals. Too often, in development, looming deadlines induce resignation and recrimination – but there are still reasons to be optimistic for the future of aid transparency and open data within the post-2015 process.

Credit is due to the High Level Panel for their boldness and dynamism. Their call for a “data revolution” set the tone for debates on a range of issues, and quickly became one of the buzz phrases of 2013.

There is no question that the “data revolution” means open data. Making detailed information available to everyone, even on something as well-established as aid, would be genuinely radical.

But buzz phrases can mean different things to different people. Many commentators have focused on inequalities of access to information. While it is of course essential to highlight obstacles to data use by the poorest, it would be foolish to put the cart before the horse. Before anyone can use data, there must be data out there.

Others have pointed out that the data revolution can’t be imposed from above. I agree – but we shouldn’t let an insistence on bottom-up approaches let those at the top off the hook on their own transparency commitments. Changes at the top can make a difference.

Aid may not be the most important resource flow after 2015, but making it transparent can make a significant difference to the problematic top-down relationships between donor and recipient nations – and it can set an example for other flows, because aid transparency has had a head-start.

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) is the only existing international open data standard now in use. Knowing how difficult it is to make new agreements – let alone implement common standards – that’s a massive achievement. Any serious attempt to start a data revolution in 2015 would be crazy to overlook a system that works.

IATI works because:
It’s relatively easy to publish to it. Organisations only need to convert information they hold into a common format, then send links to an online registry.
It’s relatively easy to use the data. It’s raw, and will need to be interpreted to make sense to everyone (like all information), but it’s fully accessible and – critically – comparable.
It’s relatively easy to adopt the standard. Many non-traditional providers of development finance, including NGOs, climate finance providers, philanthropic foundations, development finance institutions and private companies have published to IATI.

IATI itself will be too limited to encompass all resource and information flows. But new standards – for example on domestic budget transparency, or extractive industry payments, could adopt the template – and common code – to make it as easy as possible for users to compare, contrast and collate.

There is increasingly more data out there – now we must make it a useful weapon in the fight to end poverty. We are working hard to ensure donors are becoming more open and now we are working hard to ensure information will be put to use.

We know that raw data may not be understood by the average person on the street, but don’t be fooled into thinking that only small packages of neatly visualised information can be understood. That’s an excuse used too easily by those seeking to control what data is released.

IATI was built specifically in response to partner country, civil society and government requests for more detailed, useful information on money coming into their countries. All donors should publish to IATI if they want to truly bolster the bottom-up approach to international development. It doesn’t make sense for donors to be suggesting new goals and ways to hold partner countries to account, without doing their own bit first.

The end of 2015 is not only the deadline to agree new Development Goals. It is also the date by when the Busan Partnership Agreement needs to be implemented.

Our Aid Transparency Index, the industry standard for assessing transparency among the world’s major donors, shows that most donors have quite a way to go to meeting their Busan commitments. The average score for all 67 organisations was disappointingly low, despite the many international commitments and speeches about openness.

For example, France is the third largest donor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), spending over USD 1 billion in 2011. But we could find no comprehensive listing of the country’s current aid activities for DRC – or for any other recipient country. Similarly, Japan is the second largest donor in DRC, spending over USD 1.2 billion in 2011. But their database does not include basic information on the projects it’s funding, such as start or end dates of projects or their current status.

In other words, over USD 2 billion in aid to DRC – an aid dependent and fragile state –remains unmonitored. And much of the information we could get was out of date, patchy and difficult to compare with that of other funders operating in DRC.

It’s not all bad though. A leading group of organisations is publishing large amounts of useful information on their current aid activities. And some donors have made real progress over the past year. So there is reason to hope for better aid transparency by 2015.

Open data and transparency are becoming fashionable watch words, but we’re checking if donors are really delivering, looking beyond high-level commitments and long-held reputations. Crucially, we are measuring donors’ progress on the road to 2015.

- David Hall-Matthews

This post first appeared January 16, 2014 on ODI's site.


  1. I enjoyed the discussion, but I'm confused by the picture of dice and a D&D character sheet.

  2. Thanks for your comment. We removed the photo to avoid further confusion. Unfortunately, we do not have many free photo options.