Accessing Aid Information through the User’s Lens
In the aid transparency arena, one of the most frequently raised issues concerns data use. Why has there not been more uptake of data from the myriad of potential users? What is available and what isn’t? What are the barriers to use? With that in mind, we decided -- through the lens of a user -- to leverage our knowledge and experience to try to answer these questions using US International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) data.
Our latest report, US Transparency: An Assessment of US International Aid Transparency Initiative Data, reflects on our user experiences and assesses IATI data for three US agencies: the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of State (State), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). We compared information available on the IATI Registry, d-portal, and, for financial information, we also looked at comparable time frames from the data of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC).
Some good news and then a problem
IATI is essentially structured into two main areas. The “organization” file with has top-level information, such as overall budgets and country strategies. And the “activity” file, which is where project information is found.
For all three US agencies, the organization file is well structured and provides a wealth of information. The problem we quickly ran into, though, is that there is no visualization tool for users to access this information. The d-portal only displays country level project information. So, unless the user can work with the raw XML data on the IATI Registry, all of this good information is essentially unavailable. This problem is not just with US donors -- it applies to all publishers.
We decided to build a “browser extension” tool which any user can quickly download and then access the organization files. Instead of seeing the raw XML, the user gets access to a visualization of donor budgets by fiscal years, sectors, and recipient country. Additionally, users will now be able to easily search and browse thousands of strategic level documents, such as country strategies. And even better, this tool works not just for the US but for all publishers. We are launching this tomorrow at the IATI TAG, so check back for more info!
Activity level data
At the project level, we encountered more issues. To recap:
USAID has made progress since its first publication in 2012, but its project level information is hampered by problems with its basic data such as project titles, descriptions, and dates. Although USAID is trying to make improvements, any efforts run right into systems issues that have inaccurate, incomplete and/or outdated information. The best solution is the implementation of its long-awaited project management system coupled with staff training. It is essential that the political leadership makes this a priority.
The Department of State has made less progress with its activity level information. As shown in the graph to the right, State has some significant gaps in its financial reporting on IATI -- with almost half of its 2016 financial portfolio missing. Further, titles, dates, and descriptions are essentially unusable. Like USAID, but to a greater extent, the systems and processes are preventing any real progress. Unless and until State’s leadership makes investing in data solutions a priority, even basic level information remains deeply flawed.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation remains one of the global leaders in aid transparency and its IATI data is of high quality. For example, it structures its data in a user-friendly way -- something that USAID and State should consider emulating. The next challenge for MCC will be to incentivize its Millennium Challenge Accounts -- its partner country implementing agencies -- to publish more of their data. This is valuable, granular information that users would greatly appreciate.
The common thread between both USAID and State is that, while they remain committed to aid transparency, their path towards turning this commitment into usable data remains fraught with technical challenges which can only be resolved by solid political leadership. Both State and USAID must accelerate their current organization-wide system upgrades so that the basic infrastructure is present for the collection, and subsequent publication, of good data.
Many of the issues identified in our report are not specific to the US. We suggest that other donors look at their data through the lens that we did -- and hopefully our journey will be one that others can use to improve their own IATI information.