The aid transparency community has a decision to make. All at once we need to raise awareness of the presence of huge volumes of aid and development finance information, and at the same time support new and existing users when they have challenges accessing it.
In short, as more people look to IATI as a useful source of data, we need to re-double our efforts to ensure it is a usable source of data.
The shift to data use
At the recent IATI Technical Advisory Group Meeting in Nepal, data-use was very much at the forefront of the attendees’ minds. Ten years in, the aid transparency movement has more than recognised the need to shift the discussion from data publishing and data quantity to data use, data quality and aid effectiveness.
This shift is illustrated by the new Publish What You Fund strategy which details our efforts to ensure that data is used to contribute to improved development outcomes and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time we are one year into the launch of IATI’s data-use strategy, under-pinned by the establishment of the “data-use fund”.
It is understandable that to date much of the focus of the aid transparency movement has been on getting donors to publish their data – after all a critical mass of data from multiple publishers was required in order to not only paint a fuller picture of the aid and development finance landscape, but also in order to test the underpinning IATI standard and the visualisation tools that provide access to the data.
Balancing supply and demand
However, as more attention is now paid to identifying and building user groups, and upskilling these groups to enable them to access the data, we need to address the balance between supply and demand – the supply of a functioning aid transparency architecture that meets the growing demands of the increasingly numerous and competent users.
Using the data
We also regularly hear from CSOs, journalists and other stakeholders who are trying to access specific pieces of information so that they can complete their research, hold their governments to account, or learn from current and previous projects.
Just last month a CSO in East Africa, tasked with delivering a donor-funded infrastructure programme, reached out to us. They were seeking assistance as they sought to access the project evaluation documents for a previous and very similar project in order that they could understand the lessons learned and thus improve on their design and implementation approach.
It’s staggering that among all the talk of user-cases (generic definitions of potential users and how/why they might interact with publicly available data) this is probably the one we’d all love to believe that IATI and Publish What You Fund were established to support: a local development actor researching, learning, adapting, and improving.
Weeks before this, Bibhusan Bista from Young Innovations tweeted a story about a Nepalese journalist trying to get to the bottom of a donor-funded programme supporting the financial sector. Unable to find the necessary data, eventually this case came to our door.
Uncovering data errors
In both these cases our team uncovered a number of failures which had occurred and thus prevented these users from accessing the information they required. In both cases this was a mixture of publisher error (meaning the publisher failed to adhere to the principles laid out in the IATI Standard), and broader systemic problems including:
- the tools that are used to access information;
- the agreements between donors and implementers about how data should be shared; and
- the presence of duplicative/error ridden data in an environment with a lack of feedback loops or cross checking.
Our ability to follow up with all of the necessary parties to remedy issues such as these is, understandably, limited. Beyond these specific examples, there is a recognition among the aid transparency community that there are pre-existing barriers to information which still need to be addressed.
While we at Publish What You Fund have the expertise, and some capacity, to respond to these issues, there is a concern about the number of users who just give up trying to find the information they need before we can offer help.
Demand is growing
The demand for aid and development finance information is growing. This is a result of the ever growing awareness of IATI and the data that has resulted.
“Outreach” activities are also driving this awareness, including webinars and the development of new visualisation tools such as Publish What You Fund’s IATI Decipher tool which has unlocked trillions of dollars of budget information as well as more than 20,000 strategic donor documents. At the same time, the aforementioned Young Innovations has just been awarded funding to build a prototype user-feedback mechanism in an effort to promote data quality improvement.
So as demand from users grows, the capacity to deal with user queries and data errors also needs to grow. Thinking about how we respond to feedback from users, who plays what role and how efforts are coordinated, should be a priority for all publishers.