Open Data Frontiers: Going Granular, Addressing Quality and Getting Feedback

The global development community must overcome challenges of data quality, data relevance and citizen feedback if open data is to affect the kind of change it aspires to.

October 31, 2013
Bradley C. Parks

Today, 1,000 delegates from 60 countries are participating in the annual Open Government Partnership Summit in London. While the summit marks the official conclusion to Global Transparency Week, there is much work still to be done if the OGP is to fulfill its open data objective. In recent years, a growing number of governments and multilateral organizations have come to view open as the new “default”. Yet, more data is simply not enough. In my estimation, the global development community must overcome challenges of data quality, data relevance and citizen feedback if open data is to affect the kind of change it aspires to.

On Tuesday, AidData released the third version of our data portal, which provides more information about the bigger picture of development finance by including foreign direct investment and remittance data. Information is now more easily comparable as the public can export our data in open formats, including International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standard .XML. The site also adds a state-of-the-art GIS interface to visualize the data, allowing users to create, save, and share their own maps.The vision that motivated this investment in AidData 3.0 was to make aid information more accessible and actionable. Going through this process, it is clear to me that we need to take a more critical look at the information already available. The creators of IATI envisioned a world in which all aid suppliers would publish detailed and comprehensive data about their overseas activities using a common reporting standard. To date, roughly 190 organizations publish to the IATI registry, but whether or not that data will be put into good use is still in question.Last week, Samantha Custer and I welcomed the arrival of the 2013 Aid Transparency Index from Publish What You Fund with a post arguing for the inclusion of a more fine-grained indicator to incentivize donors to publish higher resolution, subnational geocoded data. At present, donors are only assessed as to whether they provide any subnational information, rather than specifying a particular level of spatial resolution.

Adding a layer of geocoded, subnational information to IATI data is important if we care about aid accountability and beneficiary feedback. If you want to enlist the support of an army of auditors, you have got to give local communities hyper-local data; otherwise, you are severing the link between transparency and accountability.With AidData 3.0 we haven taken a major step forward in making it easier for the public to visualize information on aid and other forms of development finance. We are providing a single data warehouse to store, collate, and visualize development finance activities for those donors who have provided precise latitude and longitude coordinates for their projects. When geo-referenced data is paired with high-resolution spatial data on poverty, disease, conflict, governance and environmental degradation, opportunities to improve the coordination and evaluation of development finance expand dramatically.Beyond granularity, I would also like to see PWYF add another indicator that measures the quality and consistency of the data being supplied through IATI.

To begin importing IATI data into the AidData 3.0 portal, we found approximately 30,000 “unique” organization names, including many duplicate references to the same organization. This issue and a host of other data quality and harmonization issues make it difficult for data on development activities to be aggregated, compared, and analyzed. While it’s encouraging to see more governments publish to the IATI registry, in my view the actual business of making sense of the data would be advanced if donors had stronger incentives to pay attention to the quality of data that they publish.

Over the past year, our team has made a huge push to build robust database architecture now realized in the form of our AidData 3.0 data portal. Working with our broad network of users, we are now ready to suck in, mash up, and spit out new datasets that have been waiting in the pipeline for years.We’re also innovating along another frontier – citizen feedback. The intended beneficiaries of aid often lack mechanisms to provide real-time feedback on the status and performance of development projects. Repairing this broken feedback loop is a powerful way to increase accountability and improve the effectiveness of aid programs.

In the first quarter of 2014, AidData will release additional upgrades to the 3.0 platform that focus on user input and closing the feedback loop between donors and their intended beneficiaries. Next year, users will be able to comment on projects, upload documents, videos, and photographs, and challenge the accuracy of individual data points. Take AidData 3.0 for a test drive. Download, upload and share your favorite datasets and visualizations. Tell us what you like and don’t like. Together, we can make the AidData 3.0 platform a game-changer for aid transparency and accountability.

Brad Parks is the Executive Director of AidData at William & Mary. He leads a team of over 30 program evaluators, policy analysts, and media and communication professionals who work with governments and international organizations to improve the ways in which overseas investments are targeted, monitored, and evaluated. He is also a Research Professor at William & Mary’s Global Research Institute.

Brad Parks is Co-Executive Director of AidData.