AidData, IATI, and... Boats?

One of the most exciting developments in the world of aid transparency is the emerging data sharing standard developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

April 8, 2010
Mike Tierney

One of the most exciting developments in the world of aid transparency is the emerging data sharing standard developed by the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Now many of you may never have seen the words “exciting” and “data sharing standard” in the same sentence before, but I promise, it’s true.

A lot of people have asked us lately how AidData and other aggregators are different from IATI and the IATI standard. The IATI standard is just that---a standard. But the concept of a standard may be hard to understand in the abstract. One of my favorite examples of a standard is one of the first international laws; a law of the sea that standardized the blinking light signals on ships. Prior to the agreement, each country had their own unique series of flashing light signals that their ships used to communicate with one another. However, if a ship from one country encountered one of a different nationality, they would literally get their signals crossed and often crash. Eventually, a standard light signal system was created so that all ships, regardless of origin, could communicate in the same language and avoid shipwrecks. The standard in this case is the set of internationally agreed-upon rules that govern the way that the ships now all communicate.

Okay, enough of the boat lights. Back to IATI. According to their website,

"IATI brings together donors, developing country governments, CSOs and other users of aid information to agree common information standards applicable to all aid flows. These standards are expected to include the following:

  1. Agreement on what will be published, for example detailed project information, expected outputs and outcomes, and conditions
  2. Common definitions for sharing information, to enable better comparability between donors and countries
  3. A common electronic data format, that will facilitate the sharing of aid information, and reduce transaction costs
  4. A code of conduct setting out what donors commit to publishing, how this will be made available, and how donors will be held accountable for compliance."

So how does AidData fit into all this? The AidData web portal is what experts call a “data aggregator” or “data retailer.” Unlike a standard, an aggregator is a consumer of whatever is produced according to the standard set of rules. In the absence of a standard, AidData takes information that countries and organizations make available either publicly or through partnerships and puts it all together on one site along with tools that help people make sense of it all. In fact, we spend a lot of time compiling data from different sources and translating it into a “common” format that we’ve developed. If donors and partner countries began making their development finance data available in a standardized format with agreed upon content such as the one being developed by IATI, our job becomes that much easier and we’re able to help publish higher quality information faster and with more confidence. The standard enables data aggregators and other users of aid information to compare and merge aid information to get a clearer picture of the aid world.

Photo courtesy of Curt Carnemark / World Bank

Michael Tierney is the George and Mary Hylton Professor of Government and International Relations at the College of William & Mary and Co-Director of the Global Research Institute.