Open Data and Agricultural Aid: The Next Step in Tackling Hunger

This post was written by James Coe, our Senior Advocacy Officer for U.S. advocacy and the OpenAg funding project. It is part of a blog series, where Initiative for Open Ag Funding partners share findings from their recent consultations with NGOs, donors, and foundations to understand the development community’s data needs and challenges in the agriculture and food security sector. 

Join the conversation and learn more at: https://www.interaction.org/project/open-ag-funding/overview. The full reports from the consultations are available here.

In 2011, Publish What You Fund’s Chief Executive, Rupert Simons, was working in Ethiopia on a programme to get better seeds to farmers. His was one of several run by different government agencies, NGOs and donors. Despite great effort, the results were disappointing. It took several years to fully understand why – the seeds from government farms had been contaminated by inter-breeding.

If everyone had shared their results up front, we might have identified the problem sooner, saved millions of dollars and helped farmers grow more at the same time,” he said.

The lack of open data remains a persistent problem for those working to tackle world hunger.

At present the sort of data needed to make effective decisions is not available. We know that in 2014 roughly $8.3 billion of official development assistance (ODA) was disbursed for agricultural-related development, however, we cannot accurately say where it was spent, who benefited, or how many projects met their goals. Whilst there are over 35,000 different agriculture-related activities recorded on the open data International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Registry, only a small number provide the locations of activities. Even fewer provide some form of data on the outcome.  As a consequence, development actors across the globe are forced to rely on slow, arduous methods for compiling information for a potential project.

We have to be detectives,” said one aid worker, “it is very difficult from this distance.”

Through our consultations, the Open Ag Funding Initiative found that a range of donors, NGOs and foundations want to understand what others are funding, where, with whom, and to what effect; detailed posts on their specific needs can be found here.

While there were some differences ­– for example foundations are more able to fill the data void with research consultants ­– on the whole there was a clear consensus. Access to this data will help prevent duplication, uncover funding gaps, reduce the research burden for planning a new project and significantly improve how donors target their aid.

Understanding who donors are targeting, at what level and scope helps us to target the right number of the right population,” one NGO representative told us.

By improving access to open agricultural investment data, we encourage development actors to better collaborate, coordinate and complement. “If [we knew that] all the other organizations are working in maize, then we might work in soy or another crop to boost nutrition. We’ll look to see if we can create a complementary programme to what others are doing,” said another aid representative.

Further, if development organisations are able to see project indicators and measurements of success with ‘results data’, they would be empowered to build on the concepts and ideas of their forerunners. Their present inability to do so simply inhibits shared-learning and dooms them to repeat each other’s mistakes.

This is just a snapshot of the agricultural investment data needs of donors and data-users. More information can be found in our synthesis report.

Open agricultural data is more than academic theory; it’s plausible and practical. Over 450 organizations are already publishing data to the IATI Standard, a shared machine-readable data format set up in 2008 in order to harmonise how donors publish data.

Despite much progress, however, more work needs to be done to improve the quality and comprehensiveness of available agricultural investment data. For it to have meaningful impact, the data must be timely, reliable and detailed. That is why the Open Ag Funding Initiative is working on a solid proposal of how to achieve this. We will not be covering ground already sown, but instead looking to improve the already existing process in a way which can reduce the burden for donors, help on-the-ground implementers and improve the lives of millions affected by food insecurity.

We want the development community to be involved. At the centre of our project is the need to ensure our future proposals are user-driven, built on existing frameworks and feasible for publishers to implement. For this reason, we invite all who are interested to join either our Community of Practice or Agricultural Funding Working Group.

To conclude with the words of John F. Kennedy, “neither money nor technical assistance can be our only weapon against poverty. In the end, the crucial effort is one of purpose: requiring the fuel of finance but also the torch of idealism.”

James Coe
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