What we learned about IATI at the Africa Open Data Conference
Last month Ghana hosted the second Africa Open Data Conference (AODC). The event sought to showcase the thriving open data community on the continent, bringing together open data advocates, journalists, sector specialists and software developers from across Africa and beyond.
Representatives from the Initiative for Open Ag Funding and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Secretariat were both in attendance. While we had different reasons for taking part in the conference, we had a common cause – to demonstrate IATI data, promote its use and listen to suggestions on how to make it more useful. Below are our top five takeaways:
1. There’s no shortage of impassioned pleas for data
While the IATI community often laments the lack of apparent data users, we found the very opposite at AODC. There was no shortage of impassioned pleas for information on development spending, and once people became aware of IATI, they were hungry for more.
More often than not, individuals had very specific information needs, wanting to look in detail at one or two specific donors or projects to understand their objectives, commitments, disbursements and impact. They also wanted to know the process of validation to understand how reliable the data was. Attendees did recognise, however, that introducing more layers of validation would delay early access to key information with which they could hold officials to account. Nevertheless, the users are there, and they want more data.
2. We need to refocus our efforts towards in-country users
Greater attention needs to be paid to engaging with the recipient country civil society users, as well as their governments. Our demonstrations of IATI’s search tool, d-portal were met with enthusiasm and interest. However, we found that requests for support would quickly outpace our ability to deliver it. Our takeaway from this was the significant need for more focused in-country work promoting ways to use and share IATI data.
At the same time, we should be clear about who the target users for IATI data are. Some of the people we met, such as journalists and government transparency advocates, were clearly interested in being direct consumers of this data, but many end users will benefit from IATI only indirectly. In other words, the IATI intermediaries – developers, data quality advocates, transparency nerds – need to ensure that we’re providing data that is useful for national and local governments, local CSOs, and the general public, via formats and tools that they can readily use and access.
3. Good, comprehensive data is not enough
We need tools to more effectively access and query the data. One significant challenge for IATI is the difficulty in using the data. We found that simply sharing the links to available tools was not enough, as people were unable to understand what they were looking at, its context or how to use it.
Further investment in data visualisations and simple query tools are vital if people are to start using the data. Without this, progress will only be made through one-to-one training which, while important, is not a sustainable way towards ensuring that data is used to improve development effectiveness. With such an engaged IATI community already familiar with the data, creating these kinds of tools is possible and would result in significant benefits for different user groups.
4. We have to acknowledge that IATI is just one piece of the puzzle
Development data is only one piece of a broader ‘data-ecosystem’ and is often needed alongside other data to enable proper analysis. There is much that the producers and intermediaries of this data can do to ensure that it is fit for purpose and accessible to intended users, but we should not forget that local data brokers -innovation hubs, tech companies, data scientists, incubators – can play a significant role in adding value and context to IATI data flows and re-purposing it for local use and consumption. One example heard by the Initiative for Open Ag Funding was that aid investment flows by crop type juxtaposed with crop type yield by location would enable significantly more in-depth analysis.
5. IATI is more than data, it’s also a library
One of the most attractive aspects of the IATI Standard is that publishers can link to project documents. The list of documents available often includes country strategies, budgets, project evaluations and even business and procurement documents. We found that users wanted the ability to peruse project documents as part of their investigations and research and, thus, we shouldn’t assume that ‘data is the only way’. With this, we should continue to push publishers to share not just the data but all the accompanying documentation so that IATI can serve as a useful library, as well as a data repository.