Guest blog by Heather Hanson, Senior Policy Advisor at the Millennium Challenge Corporation
If you walked into the recent International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Technical Advisory Group (TAG) meeting in Montreal, you might be surprised by the crowd. Participation wasn’t limited to government representatives in suits from around the world (like me!). The TAG was a real working meeting of data analysts, technical experts, policy wonks, and transparency advocates—many wearing jeans and sneakers, with stickers all over their laptops—who were all just diving in to build something together.
It was my first TAG meeting as a representative of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and as a relative “newbie”, here are some of my main takeaways:
1. The momentum is clear
Here I am not going to highlight the oft-cited increase in donors publishing to IATI or mention how amazing it is that there are now 200 organizations doing so (although it is amazing!). Instead, I want to give a shout out to the open-source community of support that has galvanized behind advancing the standard.
When MCC made the decision last year to publish our data in XML, we called on others to show us how the data would be used and to start making it happen. We argued that donor investments in the standard would only be worth it when we could start to see end uses that actually improve the way recipient countries, civil society actors, the private sector and other stakeholders participate in making economic development efforts a success. Hats off to the guys with the stickers on your laptops! The increase in tools, apps and solutions now being built off IATI data is truly impressive.
2. The challenges are great
Now that we have lots of data on the Registry, careful attention to the quality and usability of this data is needed. The TAG worked to address this, and I attended all of the sessions to learn more about how to improve MCC’s own data. (But I also have to admit that it’s not just because I am a data geek, but also because the titles sounded so interestingly philosophical—”Clarifying Confusions”?—sure, I feel confused at least once a day! Or my favorite: “The Single Source of Truth.” Who doesn’t want to know about that?)
It is especially clear that data quality is a top concern for representatives of recipient country governments. But for all end uses, publishers need to strive for continuous improvements.
And it is not just publishers but also the whole community that needs to continue to invest in the development of the data standard itself—to ensure new publishers have the guidance they need, to strive for comparability and to ensure that information can be integrated with recipient country budget systems.
In short, IATI will only be as good as the quality and comparability of the data itself allows.
3. We still can’t do what we want with it
Let’s face it: In the end, the whole point is to be able to trace foreign assistance funds from their point of origin to where they get spent. This is meant to help recipient countries plan better, to help citizens of those countries hold their governments accountable and to help all of us learn how to get better results for every dollar we spend. And right now, because of the complexity inherent in the field of international development, we can’t.
We need to work on building out different models of traceability, so that—regardless of the investment model of the original donor—the standard is flexible enough to allow us to follow the money. This will also allow stakeholders at every stage of the process to be able to utilize this information for accountability and for learning.
4. Speed dating isn’t just an awkward-sounding activity
I know. IATI speed dating sounds really silly. But as someone who works on improving IATI data publication, I have to say that I hear far too little from stakeholders and end users to be truly responsive to their needs. During the “speed dating” session of the TAG, representatives of recipient country governments and donors divided into small groups, and then donor groups moved around the room to talk with country representatives for five minutes each.
To truly develop, IATI needs a lot more “speed dating.” Data publishers and data users have to understand each other’s constraints and needs, policy wonks in suits have to learn to talk to developers in sneakers. And data analysts need to constantly be included so that they can help us all make the improvements required.
IATI is still young. But the TAG clearly demonstrated the tremendous progress being made, the community of stakeholders that is forming, and the growing technical prowess to improve the data and to develop tools to make it useful. This is great news because the IATI standard will only realize its full potential when the data is no longer just data but becomes an invaluable catalyst for the social, political and economic changes required to drive economic development and reduce poverty.
Until then, we all still have a lot of work to do!
Follow Heather on Twitter at @HeatherDHanson