Open, accessible and joined-up data is crucial to the data revolution. It’s time for donors to take responsibility for it.
Development data and information on its own can be very dry and difficult to dissect and analyse. The discussion on what constitutes Official Development Assistance (ODA), what doesn’t, what other funding flows exist, etc. are exclusive by their very technical and specialised nature and can be easily twisted to suit political needs and arguments. This is illustrated, for instance, in a recent controversy that erupted around whether or not the UK could use ODA to support relatively affluent British territories in the Caribbean that had been adversely affected by a series of hurricanes. Other donors eventually agreed to review the definition of ODA in order to appease the British request.
The highly technical and specialised nature of these issues are also reflected in the open data that is published on aid and development assistance. One way of helping make this data more accessible for people is to link it to other sources of information to help create a more holistic picture of what aid has helped achieve. It’s only by being able to join-up data on financial flows and results from difference sources that the public can evaluate whether a project really did result in improvements to people’s lives, whether it failed miserably, or something in between.
The need to join up data and put it into context is what led Publish What You Fund to team up with Development Initiatives to launch the Joined-Up Data Standards (JUDS) project in 2015. The project’s aim was to foster international collaboration to make commonly used international data standards interoperable to help drive poverty eradication and sustainable development. As recently stated in another blog post, the JUDS project has been more of a conversation starter than a comprehensive solution to interoperability challenges in the development sector. It has however been an incredibly successful conversation starter and has contributed meaningfully to the establishment of the Collaborative on SDG Data Interoperability, an initiative that reflects our organisational view that global institutions and standard setters need to lead the charge in making sure their data is interoperable wherever possible.
The Cape Town Action Plan for Sustainable Development Data also marks a significant step forward. It calls for making official, statistical data more open and interoperable, which supports our vision of “a world in which aid and development information is transparent, available and used for effective decision-making, public accountability and lasting change for all citizens”. We now need major donors to step up and ensure that the data revolution is open and inclusive by design. For example, the UN Secretary-General’s report on Repositioning the UN development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda makes welcome commitments to transparency, and the agencies in the UN Development Group have begun to coordinate publication in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) data standard, via http://open.undg.org/.
We commend these efforts, and will continue to monitor and reward them through tools like our Aid Transparency Index, which we are currently collecting data for. However, we urge the UN and other major donors to go further. Our research in Benin and Tanzania suggests the data is not getting through to the people who need it most. Donors need to take responsibility for this, and make sure that information on their activities, including results, are open, accessible and interoperable with other systems. They also need to make sure that there are effective feedback mechanisms for people affected by their work to report issues, query data and assure quality. Ultimately, donors need to accept that their job is empowering states and people to take ownership of their development agendas, as envisaged in the 2030 Agenda.
Publish What You Fund is proud of what we have achieved in the Joined-Up Data Standards project, together with our partner Development Initiatives. We are delighted to see the advocacy work continue through the Collaborative on SDG Data Interoperability. We will continue to call for donors to make their data on development transparent, accessible and interoperable. The data revolution for development must also be a revolution in openness.