Development Data Challenge – reporting back

I attended the Development Data Challenge organised by Publish What You Fund at the Guardian offices over the bank holiday weekend. There is a really good write up of the whole day on The Guardian’s Global Development site, Julia Chandler has written up her experience of the challenge and Laura Newman from the Open Knowledge Foundation has also written an excellent blog post, so I’m just going to cover the work that I contributed towards.

Development Data Challenge logo

The group I was with tackled a number of challenges relating to traceability of aid flows. In plain language traceability is being able to follow the money from a donor organisation or government right through to an individual activity or project in a recipient country.

One of the ideas put forward was that you might be able to visualise £100 given as aid and follow that through to see where it gets spent. People were especially interested in how much of it is spent on administration and consultancy compared with the amount spent on the actual project in the recipient country.

Because I’ve been working with aidinfo on the International Aid Transparency Initiative recently I was especially interested to see how IATI data could help traceability. There are a number of tools that we used to do this.

  • The IATI Registry, which is “an index of data published on international development activities. The registry itself stores no data, but provides a searchable index of metadata, feeds, and links to datasets hosted by donor agencies, development organisations and partner countries.”
  • There is the query API for the eXist datastore of IATI activity files that Kit Wallace has created for aidinfo.
  • AidView is an application that visualises the data from that datastore in a simple to use way.

The people I was with chose to look at aid going to Tanzania. We tried to follow a few example projects through and I’ll talk about one below. The reason we chose Tanzania was because our whole group was looking at East Africa and we were aware of the Twaweza project which has created a Tanzania Budget Visualisation Dashboard.

The IATI standard allows publishers to record a number of organisations that might be involved in a development activity. They are the funding organisation, the extending organisation and the implementing organisation. It was the implementing organisations that we concentrated on as they are the closest to a project on the ground.

One of the example projects we looked at is this frame agreement that the Finnish government has with one of their Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Suomen Lähetysseura ry. Now, the first obvious problem here is that we had no idea initially what Suomen Lähetysseura ry is or does. The IATI Registry keeps a listing of all IATI data publishers, but, as an implementing organisation, Suomen Lähetysseura ry aren’t necessarily donors themselves. They haven’t published anyway which meant we Googled their name.

From that we found out that they are the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission (FELM). Reading the project description in AidView we saw that the description of this development activity was

Rainbow School Outreach Programme. Supporting disabled children and their families. Giving the children possibility to attend special school and educating the parents on different disabilities.

A search on the FELM website doesn’t give a result for Rainbow, although it does have a page which describes the organisation’s work in Tanzania.

A search for Rainbow School, Tanzania, again through Google, gives a listing on the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs site for an Irente Rainbow School. Now this looks like it is the same project, but nowhere in the IATI data is there a reference to Irente.  Also, the budget figures show as being €27,900 for 2011, whereas IATI data shows a commitment of $139,791 over the three year life of the project. No financial transaction data has so far been published to IATI and so it is pretty much impossible to understand how those figures relate to each other.

Although we were then able to find a website for Irente Rainbow School, in Tanzania, supported by FELM, a search on the API for projects in Tanzania that have Rainbow in their description shows us that CAFOD are running some HIV and AIDS projects out of Rainbow Centres and a search on Google for “Rainbow School, Tanzania” threw up a German “African-Rainbow” project, also in Tanzania.

This really does highlight the need for data completeness and quality for open data (in general) and IATI (specifically) to approach its potential.

Completeness

The data we had gave us an excellent start in tracing individual flows of aid. However, because the structured data published doesn’t show a complete trail then we had to resort to searching in a much less structured manner to try and trace the individual projects that were recieving the aid on the ground.

There wasn’t a great deal of financial data within this particular IATI file. This meant that we could do a trace that made the delivery of this aid activity more transparent. It didn’t really allow us to scrutinise it and certainly not to the extent of tracking where the money was being spent. There were other activities we traced where a lot more financial transaction data was available.

Quality

In the example the description was imprecise about what and where the actual project activity was. I suspect this is because within FELM it is well known and so it is unnecessary to record it explicitly in the description. If so, this highlights how organisations will have to consider the different requirements for data within their own, closed world databases compared with the additional context often required when data are published openly on the web.

There are a lot of people working hard to improve the quality of IATI data. This time last year the focus was very much on encouraging organisations to publish, and while that work is still ongoing there is an increased emphasis now being placed on data quality by the IATI Technical Advisory Group, with support from the team at aidinfo.

It will be very interesting in coming years to attempt similar exercises in tracing aid flows to see the effect of these improvements.

Finally, I think I should say that no criticism of the Finnish government or FELM is implied by this post. In fact, they are used as an example because they provided some rich data for us to work with.

With thanks to Simon Parrish, Alan Upstone, Sander van der Waal, Kenneth Ross, Laura Newman, Mark Wainwright and the other people on our team for the weekend. Also thanks to Kim Borrowdale for pointing out Julia Chandler’s excellent post about the challenge.

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