Guest blog by Michael Roberts, Giveth.io
While the aid transparency community celebrates 10 years of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), another milestone has passed this spring. It has now been just over 20 years since the International Development Markup Language (IDML) Initiative was formed, the first XML-based open data standard initiative for sharing project/activity development information.
In 1996, I worked at the Bellanet International Secretariat which was housed within the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Bellanet’s mission was to increase development collaboration through the use of ICT. As part of that mission, Bellanet created a partnership with infoDev to share project/activity information. As our knowledge grew we created GK-AIMS or the Global Knowledge Activity Information Management System, an online database of aggregated donor project/activity information and arguably the very first global aggregated donor database available on the World Wide Web.
Over time we found the donors rarely added or edited information in the database unless we visited them on site or there was an event that might cause the organization embarrassment. In some cases the donors simply shared their project records as CSV files. It was clear there was an administrative burden for donor agencies to share and revise their data in this manner.
So in 1998 we became interested in a new technology called XML. XML allowed us to create a common specification to describe and exchange project/activity data, and reduce the burden for program officers.
We first presented this idea at an event hosted at IDRC in early 1999 where we invited donor agencies to discuss development collaboration and the use of this new technology. Tim Bray, co-author of XML came to the event, along with a number of key bilaterals, multilaterals, and foundations, and so the IDML initiative was born.
As documented on the original website:
“The IDML Initiative was formed to discuss the possibility of an International Development Markup Language, or IDML, for the international development community. IDML would become a data exchange standard for information that is specific to international development, making it much easier to share information with regional offices, partner agencies and with the public. It will also be easier to find and manage information about who is doing what, and where. This is a global standards-setting activity which will have radical implications for development planning over the next 10-20 years.”
While in general there was interest in this initiative, we also faced significant resistance from donor agencies and NGOs. XML, while an important and useful technology, was the new tech buzz word with tremendous hype, not dissimilar from what we are seeing today surrounding blockchain technology.
At the time a similar initiative existed, called the International Network for Development Information Exchange (INDIX), which began in 1991 and produced a CD-ROM of donor activities that was distributed to donors and NGOs. INDIX was a coalition of development aid organizations, including bilateral, multilateral and non-governmental agencies. INDIX created the Common Exchange Format for Development Activities or CEFDA and IDML was greatly influenced by INDIX and CEFDA.
As stated in their early documentation from 1991:
“At a time when funds for international development research and aid to developing countries are becoming increasingly scarce, development aid agencies must find ways to make the most effective use of their resources. Sharing information on their activities is one way in which these agencies can save money and time, by: avoiding duplication of efforts achieved elsewhere, and helping them to find partners with whom they can pool funds and expertise.”
The IDML Initiative offered to be hosted within INDIX, as the synergies were obvious. The only difference being the technology and approach employed to achieve the same goals. INDIX had a large network of donors, an in-depth manual of their data standard and years of experience.
However INDIX was not convinced of this new approach. It was seen as too nascent, obtuse and untested to justify supporting the initiative compared to their more established approach and network.
Within a few years the INDIX project came to an end mainly due to a lack of funding.
On the other hand, interest in this new XML-based IDML initiative grew, especially through the World Bank and their new initiative the Global Development Gateway. There we improved the data standard through the Aida (Accessible Information on Development Activities) project. The core group being the Global Development Gateway/World Bank, OECD/DAC, and Bellanet.
Later IATI began to emerge in 2009 and many of the same people who worked on Aida/IDML played key initial roles in the creation of the IATI data standard.
So what can we learn from this?
Firstly and most importantly, initiatives like IATI need to continue to keep a focus towards addressing internal organizational challenges on governance and capacity because that transformation will always remain relevant as technology and approaches change over time as we have seen above.
Thus IATI should continue to help organizations and governments build governance practices, around data and decision-making, increase the capacities of people around aid transparency and help organizations decide what could bring about the most important benefits to citizens.
Second, technology is constantly evolving and we should be open to new forms of technology integrations and not be locked into any one approach. New technology often inspires people to re-think fundamental assumptions and approaches to solving a problem. As Sally Eaves, Forbes Technology Council member mentioned in a recent podcast, “one of the biggest catalysts is technology integration”, so building upon our existing technology and approaches and integrating new technology when appropriate to create solutions that would not be possible if we allow ourselves to silo technology, people, and ideas into their various camps.
In the case of IATI, might it be time to challenge the current IATI publishing model? The ultimate goal of aid transparency is not a technical process of publishing XML files and we should not assume just because a process has been in place for a long time, that it is the right one or the only way to address aid transparency. While adoption of the technical process has been arguably a success at least in regards to donors, use has been a constant challenge and thus the broader transformational impact.
We should be informed by need first. Sharing data through an XML publishing process might be part of it, but not the only way to consider aid transparency.
At Giveth.io for example, we look at new charitable giving models that make the governance and approval processes very open and transparent surrounded by a community space that captures qualitative knowledge. It is another way to consider transparency and to increase trust, confidence, and accountability within the charitable giving space.
Third is to engage, and embrace the private social impact sector as part of the solution to help to achieve sustainability as donor priorities change. The social impact for-profit community is growing, and innovating within the aid transparency space. Groups like Disberse for example “enable donors and aid organisations to send and receive funds around the world more efficiently, and to track those funds through the entire funding chain from initial donor to final recipient”. The private sector can help governments and NGOs not only become more transparent, but also more efficient in the process.
Lastly, Achim Steiner, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, Co-Chair of the UN Task Force on Digital Financing of the SDGs, and an early supporter of IDML/Aida, said the “triangle of technology, the SDGs, and financing” is a crucial new arena that requires both attention and the deployment of financing “on an unprecedented scale.” This could be an exciting area for IATI to explore as part of its role regarding aid and financial transparency since IATI deals with finance, technology and the SDGs.
Over the next 20 years, we can expect incredible technology advances and so the opportunity exists to be open minded to the integration of new technology and approaches while staying focused primarily on that broader transformation that will require addressing internal organizational challenges on governance, capacity, and efficiency.
Michael has been working in the ICT and International Development space for over 20 years. He helped to design the IDML, AiDA, IATI, and Open Contracting data standards, and assisted with the formation of the UNOCHA Data Exchange project and the Open Data Charter. He was also the event coordinator for the IODC 2015 Conference in Ottawa, Canada.
Michael currently works with Giveth.io who are helping to re-engineer charitable giving by creating an entirely free, open-source platform. Their flagship product, the Giveth Donation Application (DApp) is striving to bring new governance models into the nonprofit space, and to enable nonprofits to create a high level of transparency and accountability towards Givers. You can contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @michaeloroberts.