Guest post by Laia Grino, Interaction – cross posted here.
The fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013 (FY2013) recently came to an end. This means that over the next few weeks, USAID will be working to put together its fourth quarter data for public release through the Foreign Assistance Dashboard. This summer, USAID posted information on more than 50,000 financial transactions for the first three quarters of FY2013. As we noted at the time, though the data wasn’t perfect, having information at that level of detail was a welcome and noteworthy development. We very much believe in the aid transparency mantra: “Publish what you can, improve over time.” In keeping with that spirit of continuous progress, below we offer some recommendations for what USAID could do to make its next data release more useful.
- Use actual award titles: Too many of the award titles on the Dashboard look like this – “LOC Grant,” “The purpose of this modification is to…,” “Incremental funding to…” – instead of this, “Time to Learn Project (EDC).” As one colleague put it, these are more like entries in USAID’s checkbook than actual award titles that match how USAID otherwise presents its work. A simple way to illustrate this? Google “LOC Grant” and see if you can find more information about that award. Google “Time to Learn, EDC” and this detailed page from EDC’s website is the first search result.
- Include award descriptions: These award titles are even more problematic when you consider that there are no award descriptions. This means that often the only fields that give you any sense of what an award involves are category and sector (e.g., Education and Social Services > Basic Education). This is not enough. As one potential user of USAID data noted, people need information on project objectives or even intended results. Better descriptions with these details do exist (on USAID Mission websites, this interactive map on the main USAID site, etc.). Though easier said than done, these detailed descriptions need to make it onto the Dashboard.
- Provide total award amounts, not just obligations: The data USAID released usually includes the amount of funding obligated and spent at different points in time. Without total award amounts, however, it is difficult to put these individual transactions in context. It is useful to know that USAID obligated $100,000 to Organization X in the third quarter of FY2013. It would be even more useful to know whether that is out of a total award amount of $1 million or $100 million. Again, this is information that is available elsewhere.
- Start adding sub-national geographic information: Happily, this is something USAID is already working on. In 2012, it provided funding to agroup of organizations to establish the AidData Center for Development Policy, part of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN). Among other things, this center will work with USAID’s GeoCenter to geocode aid projects, enabling “USAID and the broader global development community to more effectively target, coordinate, deliver, and evaluate their aid investments.” Once this information is incorporated into USAID’s data, it will also enable government officials in partner countries to see how much aid funding is going to their constituencies and help civil society hold governments accountable.
There are other improvements USAID could make. These range from the seemingly nitpicky but actually crucial (like making sure that unique identifiers for organizations are present, consistent and accurate), to the more obviously important (like providing information on results). The way in which data is currently presented on the Dashboard is also an obstacle to use. Still, making these changes would go a long ways to making this data useful to all stakeholders. And that is, after all, the point.