On Tuesday, I participated in a live debate hosted by Google and the Guardian on data censorship, foreign aid and international development. The event was plugged as looking at the role data has to play in policy making and transparency around international development and foreign aid, including an opportunity to explore some datasets and “bring them to life”. In practice, it was a discussion on why access to aid information is important, whether countries human rights records should be taken into account when allocating aid and the impact sanctions have on the citizens of those countries.

I was rather relieved that we didn’t spend the evening exploring datasets, as I knew what the results would be – an overview of historic aid information that only experienced data geeks would know what to do with.

Instead, I was given the opportunity to discuss our 2012 Aid Transparency Index with a new audience, including journalists, documentary makers and entrepreneurs – so not our standard audience of policy makers and aid effectiveness experts. This meant that the usual questions about indicator selection and methodology didn’t come up, but much broader questions did.

Aren’t indexes a waste of time? No, donors pay attention to them, as my in-box has testified over the past two weeks.

Government aid is pointless – the private sector is the way out of poverty. The private sector rarely flourishes in countries that do not have strong governance systems.

How do you allocate aid and collect data on countries that are not formally recognised but where the citizens of those countries are in dire need, e.g. Somaliland? Good question – interested to hear your thoughts on this.

The discussion made me take a step back and think about what we’re campaigning for at Publish What You Fund. We frequently talk about aid effectiveness and improving accountability, and our conversations with donors can quickly turn into discussions about good public financial management systems, budget codes and XML – all relevant and valid. But it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of what we’re trying to do, which is to increase the impact of aid with the ultimate aim of reducing poverty.

So the next time I’m having a conversation with a donor about the importance of matching their budget codes with those of recipient countries, or why people want to see the contracts being issued to the consulting firms and NGOs implementing aid projects, I’ll try to remember Douglas Alexander’s comment: Only one third of the world has used the Internet.

Based on my back of the envelope calculation, this means that 4.6 billion[1] people do not have access to all the documents and data that donors are making available on their websites. And even if they did, our experience of collecting the data used in the 2012 Index shows that it’s hard to find and difficult to compare with other donors’ data.

That’s not to say that donors shouldn’t publish their aid information in a comprehensive, timely, accessible and comparable format – of course the first step is making the data available – but they also need to focus on encouraging use of the data. Initiatives such as BudgiT and Ushahidi are doing this in interesting and innovative ways, and now that more data has started flowing via IATI, donors need to turn their attention on improving the quality of and access to this data. Only then can meet the demands of their stakeholders, including the very people they’re trying to help.

[1] The UNFPA stated that the world population figure would reach 7 billion by the end of October 2011: http://foweb.unfpa.org/SWP2011/reports/EN-SWOP2011-FINAL.pdf