Open data in development – the missing debate?
After reading an earlier post on the role of open data in development, Tobias Denskus calls for more critical debates around open aid data. His article is really worth reading first; he draws our attention to four issues in the current state of aid transparency:
- Everybody in the aid sector seems to be on board with it. This suggests that the ideas of aid data and transparency are too broad, no longer innovative or don’t challenge the fundamentals of development. Where’s the debate around the small print?
- Many international development decisions are political: better aid data leading to more convincing arguments is unlikely to change this.
- Data and numbers can only have a limited effect on the fundamental issues of how development “thinks, reports or learns” and aid transparency favours the quantitative over the qualitative.
- Most aid data is old data and its usefulness beyond research is limited. Complex bureaucracies might struggle to respond to outsiders engaging with their data and even if we have more current data, how much “real-time” influence is actually desirable?
What do we mean by “aid transparency”?
Everybody and their mother seems to think aid transparency is a good idea – inevitably, it means different things to different people, all depending on the occasion.
I imagine this will continue as other public transparency initiatives gain popularity, with the details and intentions of each blurring into the kinds of wooly development rhetoric we’ve all seen. When you add to it the more controversial examples of public transparency that come along and dunk the entire endeavour into disrepute, it is vital to be clear on what we’re talking about when it comes to aid transparency.
Taking a simplistic view of development information, I think there are interesting, interconnected “aid transparency” activities in each of these three areas:
1. What and where are the opportunities to improve lives?
The World Development Indicators are freely available as part of the World Bank’s Open Data Portal and offer measures for 209 countries with data from 1960 up to 2009. Local communities and initiatives like UN Global Pulse are using new technologies and approaches to “reduce by an order of magnitude the delay in availability of actionable information on household-level impacts and vulnerabilities” We’re gradually getting a clearer, more timely picture of humanitarian and development needs and opportunities.
2. What’s being done about them?
Sam Moon and Tim Williamson define aid transparency as the “Comprehensive availability and accessibility of aid flow information in a timely, systematic and comparable manner that allows public participation in government accountability.” With the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) – there’s now broad agreement among donors on publishing the details of “who is doing what, where” that represent around 75% of the approximately USD 120 billion in global aid. This is open data on past, present and planned aid activities.
3. Is it working?
The UK is emphasising the sharing of measurable results as part of its aid transparency agenda (Nancy Birdsall’s thoughts on this are worth a read) and I expect other donors to do more of the same. There are good examples of community and beneficiary feedback systems in Akvo and part of Global Giving’s work which offer both quantiative and qualitative data on the impact of aid funded work.
With this broader view of aid information in mind, let’s consider the issues Tobias raises.
Is “aid transparency” becoming development jargon?
In the West, the driving ideas behind government transparency have been knocking around since the Enlightenment; by this measure, the current focus on aid transparency is overdue rather than innovative. Having said that, I think the idea of open data in development is innovative and I don’t believe most people who “like” aid transparency fully appreciate what open data means.
For many, aid transparency boils down to “look at this table in our annual report” – if we didn’t move on from this, the impact on the fundamentals of development would be negligible. Since September 2008, IATI has gradually established consensus amongst donors on exactly what data to publish, common definitions to make data comparable and an electronic (XML) standard to make it easily shareable.
So, at least when it comes to “who’s doing what, where”, the data piece of aid transparency is well defined, clearly bounded and boils down to organisations agreeing to publish information (that they already have) in a standard form so different people can easily use it.
Development decisions can be political, will aid data change this?
There is a strange tendency among people working in development, faced with political decisions which make aid less effective, to assume that these political forces are beyond our control and influence. Yes: development decisions can be political; access to aid data is one thing which may change the politics.
There’s a growing body of evidence (see Rosemary McGee & John Gavent’s IDS paper) demonstrating how transparency impacts things like the quality of service delivery. There’s not as much discussion around overcoming the political hurdles in building a working feedback loop from those who ultimately benefit from aid to those who make the policy decisions.
Jorg Faust’s paper “Do Less Transparent Donor Countries Allocate Aid Differently?“ shines some light on these issues. His hypothesis is that “higher levels of political transparency – the ease with which the public can monitor the government – are conducive for limiting the impact of special interests on policy-making.” He finds that political transparency in donor countries has a significant impact on how they allocate their resources for development assistance. In the study, more than half the variation between donors in how well they allocate aid can be explained by how transparent they are. From a policy perspective, this study confirms that donor transparency leads to more effective aid. It is an example of how access to data can change the political forces.
There is potential for behaviour change when political decisions are made in an environment where they are publicly documented and those making them can be held to account. At the very least, with open aid data, there will be more people researching and advocating for changes in development (including those directly benefitting from it) who can make a better informed, politically sophisticated case.
Are data and numbers enough to make development better?
We’ve argued that aid transparency is necessary but not sufficient for making aid more effective. To unpack an aspect I find interesting, consider Tim O’Reilly’s vision of “Government as a Platform”. The premise is that by opening up its data, the state is able to improve the way that problems are dealt with at a local, national and international level. The state acts as “a convener and an enabler” of the civic action that can take place when modern internet technologies are combined with government-provided data. We now know that opening up government data multiples its economic and social value; I see no reason why this shouldn’t hold true in development.
Another parallel here is with access to mobile phones. Does access to mobile phones, by itself, reduce poverty? No. Can access to mobile phones enable people to change their lives, whether through mobile banking, making agricultural markets work better, or better election monitoring? Yes. Access to data won’t, by itself, make development work better, but it opens up new ways in which people can help themselves.
The transparency agenda isn’t about using numbers to directly redesign the aid system (along with how it “thinks, reports or learns”). Instead, “it seeks to change the dynamics of the system to make it more responsive and more likely to converge by itself on solutions which better serve poor people in developing countries” as Owen notes in his response to Shanta Deverajan’s post on “Development 3.0“
In other words, information on aid transparency – and in particular, a better feedback loop between beneficiaries and donors – is something we need to build upon because it will enable ongoing, incremental improvements to aid as a whole.
How can data be used to change funding before it is spent?
At the moment, aid information is published too slowly and the majority of it is historic. On this theme, Robert Kirkpatrick of UN Global Pulse gave an excellent talk at this year’s International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM) where he says, “When it comes to global crises we’re investing based on data that is 2-5 years old”. So, our picture of the world is out of date and right now, the typical data on “who’s doing what, where” in the aid sector is at least 12 months old, if its available at all.
Yet donors do have information about their plans: the typical project cycle includes stages of budgeting, planning, and analysis before money is disbursed, and there is no reason why more of this information should not be publicly available and subject to scrutiny. The IATI mechanism allows this to happen – enabling donors to live up to their commitment, given in Accra, to publish forward looking aid information.
This will improve donor coordination, and it gives recipient countries an opportunity to shape the funds heading their way. I also see this as part of the “Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Solutions” idea that the World Bank has been promoting. It’s a step away from the slow-moving Washington consensus of development towards something more responsive, representative and fluid.
It remains to be seen how the dynamics of complex bureaucracies respond to this. It seems likely that the knowledge that this information will be public will be self-discplining, encouraging more thorough and evidence-based analysis of planned aid programmes; and aid agencies will adapt, over time, to become more responsive to the expertise and views of outsiders.
Open aid data is just a tool.
Tobias raises some worthwhile points in his original post; I’ve offered a perspective that I hope strengthens the argument for open aid data but the call for more critical debate still stands. The work aidinfo and others have done to date has focussed on building the case for transparency in aid, getting the data out there and showing what’s possible. Now that the data’s coming, the next phase of aidinfo’s work is about the day-to-day application of this information, and in supporting the institutions and individuals who want to use it.
The goal is to improve lives: open data is just a tool, and how we use it to make aid more effective is really worth thinking about.