This interview was originally posted on the TechSoup Global blog.
In this interview Tim Davies, curator of aidinfolabs.org and member of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Working Group on Open Development, and Alexandra Beech, communications officer at aidinfo talk to TechSoup Global about aidInfoLabs and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). IATI was set up in 2008 to make it easier to find, use and compare information about aid spending. Its aims to help implement transparency commitments made at the Accra Agenda for Action, which arose from the March 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. IATI advocates the development of a common standard for reporting aid data to improve development effectiveness. IATI is currently endorsed by 22 partner countries (aid-recipient country governments) and has 20 organisational signatories. Participants, which include foundations, civil society organisations, donor and aid-recipient country governments, bilateral and multilateral organisations have agreed on a common, open, international standard for publishing more, and better, information about aid. Aidinfo set up aidInfoLabs.org to enable the sharing of ideas, tools, prototypes and applications that take IATI data and turn it into useful aid information. In this interview, Davies and Beech discuss the ways in which NGOs are involved with IATI and how they can be more involved. They also speak about how data is being analysed and the opportunities, constraints and possibilities for the future of IATI and aidInfoLabs.
1.How have civil society organisations informed the criteria for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and how should they continue to engage with this?
Alexandra Beech: IATI is a multi-stakeholder initiative and civil society has been an important part of that from its launch in 2008 at the Third Accra High Level Forum (Accra HLF3). Publish What You Fund, Transparency International, the BetterAid Platform, the INGO Accountability Charter and the International Budget Partnership are all part of the IATI decision making body – the Steering Committee. A further 20 or so Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) from both North and South are also members of the Technical Advisory Group, which worked over a 2 year period to consult on the content of the Standard, and the detailed consultations that went into putting the Standard together included not only aid-recipient country governments, but also NGOs, with leading European and US CSOs taking part in IATI consultation meetings in Brussels and Washington DC in 2009, and 13 international NGOs joining the 156 regional and national CSOs who took part in regional IATI consultation meetings in the South organised by IBON International.
In the past, the focus has been on civil society as advocates for donor transparency, but in the last year there has been a shift in approach. Now that CSOs are beginning to look at the standards as development providers themselves, a whole new process has started, with the forming of a CSO Working Group under the Technical Advisory Group. This group will enable CSOs to participate in discussions around data exclusion protocols that are relevant for NGOs, and exploring how the standards can be approached by such organisations wanting to publish information on their own projects.
2. The Development Initiatives Poverty Research (DIPR) is the first and only NGO to publish their data in an IATI compliant format. Thus far DIPR have only published activities funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation though they have a timeframe for making more data. How does such reporting benefit civil society organisations?
Alexandra Beech: Data published in an IATI format can easily be re-used by an organisation for other types of reporting. What’s more, the process of publishing open data can highlight areas where information management systems aren’t working as effectively as they should be. By encouraging staff to begin thinking about transparency and open information when they do their work, the quality and accuracy of data produced initially is likely to increase.
Of great significance also, is the step by the Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK recently to stipulate IATI compliance as a requirement for receiving funding. Back in April, DFID required all organisations receiving Programme Partnership Arrangement funding to begin working on publishing their project data in compliance with the IATI standard as of the beginning of financial year 2012/2013. DFID is the only organisation doing this at the moment, but it seems likely that other funding organisations may follow suit. In other words, NGOs publishing IATI compliant data may be a way of showing how accountable they are, and thus increase the chances they have of receiving funding.
3. What has been most important in gaining consensus for IATI?
Alexandra Beech: First, IATI is a voluntary initiative – those who’ve joined are there because they made an initial commitment to the aims and aspirations of the initiative. Second, IATI spent its first year conducting in-depth consultations with users of aid information, especially aid-recipient country governments and CSOs. This has helped IATI gain consensus that the final standard must meet the priority needs identified by stakeholders in aid-recipient countries. Third, IATI has allowed individual signatories to determine their own timetable for implementation, and this level of flexibility has enabled individual donors to move forward at their own pace.
4. How important do you think data visualisations are for understanding the datasets presented in aidInfoLabs?
Tim Davies: Being able to present data in accessible ways is really important. Maps, graphs, and clear visual presentation all help people to get a sense of what a dataset is saying. However, we’re discovering it’s not as simple as putting figures direct from the IATI raw data files into simple Google Charts or other visualisations – we need to do a lot of design work to identify how best to communicate the data accurately and effectively. There are some subtleties in the data, such as the difference between budgets and commitments, or disbursements and expenditure which we need to find ways to communicate to different users (some of whom will know the terminology of aid and how it works; others who might be new to the formal aid reporting world).
We’ve recently been exploring user-centred design process, taking persona and scenarios (See the People section under ‘Inspiration’ on aidInfoLabs) to make sure we have a good understanding of the sorts of visualisations different users might want to see, and working to design some templates and guidance that will help anyone creating visualisations with IATI data.
5. How successful has the ‘people’ section of the aidInfoLab website been so far?
Tim Davies: Generating persona, and trying to share conversations and stories from real users of the data has been really useful in focussing how we’re designing things, and a number of other people have also picked up on the idea of sharing user stories so we hope to include a larger collection of insights into users of aid and development data soon. Creating imagined profiles of users is just one step towards being user-centred in the way we make aid information useful, and it’s not a replacement for direct interaction with users across the world. But as a first step, it’s proving really useful.
6. How are organisations like the Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank and European Commission (IATI signatories) engaging with the initiative?
Alexandra Beech: Becoming a signatory to IATI means showing support to the principles of transparency as laid out at Accra, and agreeing to publish information on their projects in line with the IATI standard. IATI signatories have been involved in the process since the beginning, with CSOs and aid-recipient country governments, deciding on the data that should be published, the form it should be published in and the guidelines around how it should be published. With the agreement of the content of the Standard in February 2011, now signatories are working towards publishing IATI data. We now have 5 signatories publishing IATI data – DFID, The World Bank, The Hewlett Foundation and the Netherlands, and by the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, there should be a further 5 or 6 doing the same.
7. How influential do you think the IATI can be in helping to influence how governments and philanthropists give?
Alexandra Beech: IATI is attempting to increase the effectiveness of aid by encouraging all aid providers (governments, multilaterals, foundations and NGOs) to publish timely, comparable and accessible data on the projects they run. I think the UK Government is a good example of how IATI has helped influence giving, in that their focus lies in the arena of value for money. By publishing all their information proactively, it enables their citizens to hold them to account for the way their tax money is being spent.
Ultimately, if the majority of aid providers start publishing IATI data in a comparable way, it will make it easier to plan aid projects in the long term. For example, if a new donor already had a picture of how many health projects were happening in one particular region/town/village in Uganda, they could plan to start their own projects in a different area that was lacking in health initiatives, and therefore ensure that their aid added real value, maximising their impact.
8. What do you think has been easier than expected to accomplish with IATI and what do you think has taken longer?
Alexandra Beech: It was relatively easy to secure high-level political commitment to IATI at the Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, as there was considerable consensus on the need for action. It took longer than was originally envisaged to move from this initial concept to agreement on the final standard, and then to its implementation by signatories. This is because, as a multi-stakeholder initiative, IATI has had to balance the information demands of aid-recipient country governments and CSOs with what is practically possible to deliver from a donor perspective. Overall, IATI has made remarkable progress over the past three years, and has been identified by a number of key players as a potential building block for the next High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan at the end of November.
Having a well described XML standard for the raw IATI data means we’ve been able to make use of a lot of freely available open source tools to work with the data. A great community is developing around making IATI data accessible, and they’re sharing source code, ideas, tips and tricks and that all makes working with the data a lot easier for everyone.
9. What have you learnt so far with aidInfoLabs and how will it inform your strategy for the coming year?
Tim Davies: We’ve been learning a lot about the need to invest in supporting the community of developers around an open dataset, and the value of actively curating resources that help people get started with the data. Making effective use of IATI data is not trivial, so making sure everyone can get up to speed on what they need to know about working with the data, about making it accessible to real users, and about who else they could collaborate with, has been important.
We’re also finding that a number of the tools and resources being created for working with IATI data, like data aggregators, or code-lists for mapping one dataset to another, are like public goods: they are useful to everyone, but no one individual or organisation is necessarily best placed to run them in the long term. We’re exploring how these prototypes, public goods can become sustainable, and what sort of practical and governance arrangements might be needed for that in the future.
I can’t say all that much about strategies for the coming year, but we’ll certainly be carrying on exploring the learning.