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Sampling IATI data round 1: Lessons learned

Thursday, July 10th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Ruth Salmon, Research Assistant at Publish What You Fund. Salmon is the lead on data collection for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index. This post originally appeared on Publish What You Fund’s blog on July 7, 2014.

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Data collection continues for the 2014 Aid Transparency Index (ATI). And for the first time, we are sampling documents and data on the results, conditions and sub-national location published to the IATI Registry in XML format.

Sampling essentially means manually checking that the information provided is specific to that activity, has been appropriately tagged using IATI codes, and that it adheres to the ATI indicator guidelines.

The prospect of sampling documents and data for 16 ATI indicators, covering 25+ IATI standard elements, across 27 IATI publishers, was a daunting one. But we knew we had to plough our way through to ensure the information published about aid is relevant and of good enough quality to be used.

Yet this task turned out to be much more fun – and much less arduous – than we feared.

The good examples we found highlighted the potential of IATI data. There were plenty of things to get excited about. We’re happy to note in this first round of sampling that 82% of the 27 IATI publishers sampled passed the sampling checks for the indicators they publish.

The Good

As we clicked through the documents and IATI excerpts randomly selected for us by our sampling tool, there were many examples of good practice:

  • Subnational geo-coding: The European Commission’s Foreign Policy Instrument Services, the Netherlands, African Development Bank (AfDB)  and the World Bank are all publishing excellent geo-coded data, enabling us to see the coverage of project activities clearly within each country.drc-location
  • Results documents and data: Some results information clearly shows whether activities have achieved their intended outputs against stated goals. GAVI, Asian Development Bank (AsDB), Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), World Bank, and DFID have some great results documents, and Global Fund, Sweden and Canada  have some good examples of structured data.mcc-results
  • Appropriate language use: Several organisations (IADB, AfDB, UNDP) are publishing documents and IATI data fields using the language of the recipient country, making it more accessible for in-country users.

The Bad

Some less than helpful trends emerged too…

  • Over tagging: Some organisations are linking many documents to a single IATI category code, even when the code isn’t relevant to that document. This effectively renders the use of codes meaningless, making it very difficult to find the information you seek.
  • Inaccessible data: On a few occasions we were unable to access documents because of broken links. The use of scanned PDFs also makes the data difficult to parse and scrape. Document links led to generic web pages, with no clues on how to find documents for specific activities. Some samples were difficult to understand due to the acronyms and shorthand used to describe information.
  • Incoherence within data: Occasionally the codes used in the IATI data didn’t match the documents tagged. For example, country strategies tagged as organization strategies. There are several cases where the data specifies that no conditions are attached but conditions documents, with clear conditions outlined, are tagged!

The Ugly

Finally, a tiny percentage the IATI data we sampled was incomprehensible. Activities had no titles or descriptions, and were just lists of unlabelled transactions. This makes the information fairly useless to pretty much everyone. Queue many unrepeatable mutterings, long sighs and exasperated researchers.

The reality hit that it’s not possible to truly celebrate IATI publication until it is done well. Done badly, it serves very little use at all.

In summary…

Sampling has showed us the potential of using XML for publishing aid data for a wide variety of organisations. The elements of the IATI code had been used in many different ways, depending on what fits best with organisation’s particular structure and activities. When accurate and well-coded, it became clear that IATI data makes it easy to compare aid spending across time, space and many organisation types.

But it has also shown that unless the IATI standard is adhered to, the information published runs the risk of being difficult to understand, difficult to access, and difficult to reuse. Although it’s our impression that the majority of the errors we found were unintentional, it’s important that they are fixed to deliver on the full potential of IATI – of comprehensive, comparable aid data.

Now with data collection complete for 2014, we’re busy finalising and analysing the dataset so we can see this year’s results. Watch this space!

ForeignAssistance.gov Is Getting Bigger; Here’s How to Make It Better

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Sarah Rose, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Global Development. The piece originally appeared on CGD’s blog on June 23rd.

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We’re getting closer to knowing how the USG spends its foreign assistance dollars.  Recently, the State Department announced its first release of foreign assistance data on the ForeignAssistance.gov website (also known as “The Dashboard”).  This may not sound terribly glamorous, but it’s actually important news.  Since State’s spending makes up over a third of all US foreign assistance spending, the absence of its data has been a huge gap. With this recent State Department move, spending data for agencies responsible for 96 percent of US foreign assistance are now online. It’s great to see the Dashboard—now in its fourth year—slowly coming together. As it does, here are a few thoughts on why it’s still a good investment, the big challenges it faces, and how it can be improved.

Why We Should Cheer for the Dashboard

If well implemented, the Dashboard, an online resource of US foreign assistance spending (and potentially other) data, can:

  • Increase accountability and transparency: One of the Dashboard’s main goals is to enable easier access to information about US foreign assistance investments by US citizens, Congress, other US agencies, along with citizens and governments in recipient countries.
  • Ease agencies’ reporting burden (eventually): Behind the Dashboard lies a massive database that will eventually contain all of the underlying information necessary not just to populate the online interface but also to fulfill USG’s other regular reporting, like IATI, the Greenbook, and the OECD-DAC’s Creditor Reporting System.  Once the Dashboard/IATI process is automated within the agencies, complying with all this reporting should become much more streamlined and, importantly, more institutionalized.
  • Create incentives for improved data quality: Publishing data can change the dynamic around data quality.  The prospect of increased scrutiny can create an incentive for agencies to reinforce internal systems to produce cleaner, better organized data which can, in turn, bolster an agency’s own understanding of its internal operations.

Why It’s Taking So Long

The Dashboard was announced in 2010.  The effort is led by State’s F Bureau, which coordinates with the (over 20!) USG agencies that deliver some form of foreign assistance, and collects, codes, and publishes their data submissions. Some agencies, however, are far more capable of reporting to the Dashboard than others.  What’s so hard about data reporting, you may ask?  Quite a few things, it turns out, including:

  • Existing information systems’ incompatibility with Dashboard requirements.  Different agencies have different financial and project management information systems.  In fact, individual agencies often have multiple, separate systems.  Most of them long predate any notion of “open data” and are simply not designed to compile information in the way the Dashboard needs it.  Changing IT systems is a massive, costly undertaking.
  • Foreign assistance funds must be parsed out from a broader portfolio.  For agencies whose core mission isn’t foreign aid, internal systems weren’t set up to differentiate between foreign assistance and domestic spending. This makes it difficult to identify what’s right for the Dashboard and what’s not.  MCC has it easy in this respect (foreign aid only); the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, does not (mostly domestic).

At this point, the Dashboard team over at State is focused principally on providing data (i.e., getting more agencies on board) as well as pushing for improved data quality.  The team is pursuing a phased approach to populating the web portal, publishing agencies’ data as they have it ready.  It’s a courageous move for the USG to publicly release information knowing that it’s incomplete (and highly imperfect). Yet, they recognize that an incremental approach maintains pressure for continued implementation and fosters competition among agencies.  It may also help ease the culture shift towards transparency by gradually demonstrating that openness doesn’t have to be threatening.

Users Beware

This incremental approach also creates risks for users since:

  • A user can’t easily tell if data are complete—and often they’re not.  By illustration, this graphicshows agency-by-agency reporting to the Dashboard. You’ll see that not a single year contains information from all agencies (2006 to current), and that most agencies have reporting gaps.  It’s great that the Dashboard is frank about this, but the problem is that this is not clearly indicated where it needs to be.  For instance, if you wanted to find out about aid to Tanzania from 2008 to 2012, you would probably go directly to the Tanzania page and assume that what you pulled for “all agencies” means just that.  You’d be wrong. Only MCC and Treasury have 2008 data on the Dashboard, so “all agencies” means just those two for that year.  More broadly, it’s hard for a user to tell easily if data that don’t show up are absent because they don’t exist (e.g. DOD didn’t spend foreign assistance money in Country X in a given year) or because it’s missing (e.g. DOD did spend foreign assistance money in Country X that year but hasn’t reported it). The Dashboard does include caveats about data limitations but they’re unintuitively scattered in way too many locations that aren’t near where users are looking at data.  So they’re only helpful if a user thinks they should have a question about data quality or comprehensiveness and actively seeks this information.
  • Transaction-level data are incomplete (and sometimes unintelligible). Some important fields are missing from most agencies’ submissions.  For example, State is uniformly missing project title and description making it nearly impossible for a user to tell what he or she is looking at.  MCC has titles, but not descriptions.  USAID has descriptions for most of its transactions, but many of these merely replicate the title, are unintuitive to outsiders, refer to supporting documents that are unavailable, and/or cut off mid-description.  Start and end dates are also complicated.  For USDA they’re missing.  USAID provides only the year; MCC provides only the start date. State’s date reporting is spotty and contains apparently inconsistent information, like disbursements that happen before start dates.

Getting the data out there is important, and it’s the right thing to do.  But doing so while simultaneously improving coverage and quality gives me two related (though opposite) concerns.  I’m worried that:

1)      People Will Use the Data and draw incorrect conclusions due to missing or poor quality data; and/or

2)      People Won’t Use the Data because they are aware of its current limitations and will write off the Dashboard as an unreliable source, regardless of whether data coverage and quality improve later.  In a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum, lack of use could in turn slow Dashboard progress, since, to some extent, agencies need to know people will use the data before they invest scarce resources to provide it and improve its quality.

Ideas to Increase the Dashboard’s Potential

State’s Dashboard team and the 20+ agencies with foreign assistance spending are working hard to make the Dashboard a useful, relevant tool.  It’s a big undertaking.  Here are four things I hope they are considering:

1)      Help users better understand the data: The main risks to the Dashboard come from incomplete and thus unreliable data.  Breadth and reliability are key requirements for data to be truly useful. Therefore, the Dashboard should be abundantly clear when users are looking at complete versus partial information, or preliminary versus final data. Users should not have to dig through multiple, separate “additional information” pages to find this out.

2)      Improve transaction data:  Agencies should strive to fill the gaps in their transaction data (especially critical things like titles that facilitate rolling up transactions to the project level), as well as improve the comprehensibility of the information (for example, make descriptions descriptive).

3)      Don’t forget about usability: The current priority of the Dashboard is to publish as much data as possible in manipulable format and let users work with it as they wish.  However, a single user interface is never going to be able to meet the needs of all stakeholders, so the USG should reinforce its efforts to: (i) define who their priority audiences are; and (ii) understand how these different groups want to use the data and tailor the interface accordingly.  The Dashboard team is already taking steps in this direction with outreach to country missions and US-based stakeholders.

4)      Publish agency specific implementation schedules: The Dashboard website does explain where each agency is in the implementation process. But, it should also include agency-by-agency schedules for reporting compliance (and not just with Dashboard requirements, butwith IATI requirements, too).  This would not only provide an accountability structure that would help motivate continued momentum, it would also serve as an important signal of commitment.

Investing in Childhood: Building a Better Future for Mothers and Children in Afghanistan

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children and MFAN Co-Chair.

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A few weeks ago, USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on how crucial it is to keep Afghanistan on the right track, so that the country can build upon the many gains and accomplishments already made. This will require continued investment, monitoring and accountability to ensure that short-term progress can evolve into long-term change for all Afghans, especially children and their families.

Save the Children has worked in Afghanistan since 1976. We have seen families struggle through decades of conflict and we know that an investment in children is the best way to build a better future for all Afghans. We have responded to droughts, floods and refugee crises in Afghanistan to help families when crisis strikes and we work every day to give children a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm—things that every child deserves, no matter where they’re born.

In the past several years, it has become clear that our investment—and the investment of donor governments, global partners and Afghan leaders—is paying off in the lives of families. The increased availability of basic health services and training of community health workers who bring care to families in remote areas means better health outcomes, especially for vulnerable women and children.

In Save the Children’s annual State of the World’s Mothers report, for example, war-torn Afghanistan ranked as the toughest place on earth to be a mother in 2010 and 2011. This ranking is based on 5 key indicators: maternal mortality, child health, women’s educational opportunity, women’s economic status and women’s political representation—a lens through which to look at the experience of motherhood in countries around the world. Afghanistan’s place at the bottom of the list just a few short years ago speaks to the incredibly difficult circumstances in which Afghan mothers found themselves.

But in our latest report, released in May of this year, Afghanistan moved up an unprecedented 32 places in the ranking. This is thanks to the country’s investment in midwives, so mothers and newborns are safe at the dangerous time of birth; its dedication to providing lifesaving immunizations and other health interventions for newborns and young children; and its changing policies on education, so more girls can attend school.

Afghanistan has reduced maternal deaths by two thirds in 15 years, an almost unheard of accomplishment especially in a country experiencing ongoing conflict. In 2001, one of every four children born in Afghanistan died by the age of five; in 2014 that number is one in ten. These numbers are worth celebrating—it’s important to recognize the investment of so many partners who saw a reason to hope when the situation was bleak, and a reason to invest in children and mothers who deserved so much more.

Progress in education has been slower, especially for girls. Since 2002 the number of girls attending school increased by over 30%, although an estimated 1.5 million school-age girls are still not enrolled in classes.  Today, only 40% of Afghan girls attend elementary school and only one in 20 girls attend school beyond the sixth grade.  This is a huge area for improvement—and further investment can help Afghan girls access the best possible tool to build a better world for themselves and their families: education.

As Afghanistan and the world awaits the results of last weekend’s presidential run-off election, it’s more important than ever to look to the future.  Afghanistan is a potential success story of the power of foreign assistance—but it still has a long way to go. With smart aid, partner collaboration and remembering that an investment in a child is always a good investment, we can help Afghan children and families write the next chapter of the country’s remarkable progress.

More U.S. agencies publishing aid data to international standard

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from Publish What You Fund about the recent release of data by the State Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Foreign Assistance Dashboard.

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In the last few weeks the Foreign Assistance Dashboard added two new U.S. agencies to its list of publishers.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its aid information on May 28 and the State Department on June 1.

Publish What You Fund welcomes this progress, but initial analysis raises some very basic quality issues.

In summary, the Agriculture Department publication includes obligation and spending data from five of the nine USDA agencies implementing foreign assistance programs. The State Department’s data comes from the State’s centrally-managed financial system and includes both grants and contracts for domestic foreign assistance obligations and expenditures.

Both publications present significant data quality issues. For example, some activities lack a project name or project description. The start and end dates are equally problematic as in many cases they have the start and end date 01/01/0001 [State Department activities can be seen at the bottom of this file].

While Publish What You Fund encourages the publication of more foreign assistance from U.S. agencies, equally concerning is the quality of the data and what challenges it presents to the user of this information.

The Aid Transparency Index (ATI) data collection will close on June 30 and the data analysis will be conducted in July and August. Thorough analysis of this information, along with other U.S. agencies and programs’ data (including the Department of Defense, PEPFAR, MCC, Treasury and USAID) will be published in autumn.

Stay tuned for more developments as we near the launch of the ATI.

Dashboard-image1

Building aid transparency: more data, better data

Monday, June 16th, 2014
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See below for a guest post from George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair. This post originally appeared on Publish What You Fund on June 13, 2014.

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There are two new agencies publishing information to the foreign assistance dashboard: the State Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This is good news.

But the question remains: Is more data always better, and for whom? Is the exercise of publishing volumes of data to the dashboard just a routine exercise, or a deliberate effort to improve the information available for more effective aid and better development outcomes?

A decade ago, data was the private domain of statisticians, economists, mathematicians, engineers, demographers, and others with a technical bent. The closest it got to policy was on the political side—pollsters advising candidates and politicians configuring legislative districts to their advantage.

Today data is discussed not just in academic and limited policy circles, but in high level international fora. The “data revolution” was highlighted in the U.N. Panel of Eminent Persons as part of the post 2015 agenda. Open government and aid transparency are widely discussed, a substantial shift from the days when discussing corruption in development meetings was taboo.

The U.S. government has been part of this change. It co-founded the Open Government Partnership in 2010, launched the U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard to make public all U.S. foreign assistance data, and in 2011 committed to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Strong as the U.S. policy commitment on aid data transparency has been, implementation has been slow.

To be fair, it must be acknowledged that aid data transparency—putting data and information on assistance into the public realm—is a concept that is easy to understand but complicated to implement. What data? In what form? For what user? How best presented?  And the questions go on.

A central issue in aid transparency is whether the effort is worthwhile—whether the data is useful to users.  And usability is driven by the amount and quality of the data, how it can be accessed and viewed (visualization), and the needs of the particular user.

The Diversity of Aid Data Platforms

There are various platforms (websites) being built to house and visualize data on assistance. Two colleagues at Brookings and I have been looking at some of the principal aid data websites. What comes through is that no single site meets the needs of all users. And that is as it should be.

 aid data summary table

 [See full presentation, which is intended to start a conversation and encourage further analysis.]

Some platforms are global in presenting data for many or all donors, such as the OECD Creditor Reporting System (CRS) and AidData; others are donor specific (U.S. Foreign Assistance DashboardDFID Development Tracker, and the Dutch OpenAidNL); and some aid recipients are creating systems to track data into their countries.

Some platforms are strong in providing the non-technical, macro-perspective user with a quick overview of assistance statistics, while others allow downloading raw data for the technical person who knows how to work data and needs to perform detailed analysis. The data platforms should clearly indicate their core functions and intended audiences. Many of the sites use a single source for the data intake, the IATI Registry, which is where one can find the raw, structured data. IATI is the only place to find comparable aid information from all donors. IATI simply provides the data for different uses and users.

A second finding is that despite the global commitment in principle, there is a paucity of good, valuable data.  The CRS data is comprehensive but detailed information often is two years old, making it ideal for statistical studies and analysis but of little use for in-country planning or budget allocation. Several donors have put up their own sites, but they provide data only for that donor, such as the U.S. Dashboard.

Governments responsible for 86 percent of official development assistance have committed to IATI, but the data is only slowly entering the IATI registry.  A few donor agencies, such as the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), have fully embraced IATI. DFID not only has published data to the registry but has adopted the IATI schema for its own Development Tracker and is using the data to manage its programs.

The U.S. record is mixed. The newest publication is from the State Department, which includes information from the bureaus and offices implementing foreign assistance funding. The data published is a step forward and State’s progress is welcomed, but the quality of the data remains a challenge to be addressed. Two weeks ago, five of the nine USDA agencies implementing foreign assistance programs published planning, obligated, spent, and transaction data to the Dashboard. Similarly, this is a positive development and USDA’s data is a useful addition to the foreign assistance full picture.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has published all of its data in IATI XML format and has led the way with comprehensive, high quality, disaggregated information. The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Technical Assistance published its data in XML in 2013, but this file has not yet been updated. Other U.S. government agencies are far behind: USAID has loaded a lot of data but it is financial information that is not connected to specific projects; the Defense Department is missing its transaction data; and totally missing is data from PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and other agencies.

Balancing Aid Data vs. Visualization

There is a tension in the data arena on priorities—more data or better visualization?  It is not a chicken-and-egg issue, as either the chicken or the egg must come first, we just aren’t sure which. But data and visualization should evolve together—one cannot create visualizations without data, and most of us cannot analyze or understand reams of spreadsheets with numbers unless they are aggregated into nice “pictures.”

I learned a long time ago that demand for data does not exist in a vacuum. The demand for more and better data is created by demonstrating the knowledge that can be found in data through graphs and charts that are easy to interpret. Show a policymaker new knowledge through a graph, and she will begin to understand the value of data and want more. The visualization should be easily interpreted by the user, it should answer the users’ questions and concerns and it should be tailored to his needs.

That said, to determine the proper focus—the proper balance—for U.S. government data transparency efforts, it is necessary to ask what is the comparative advantage of government. In this arena, it clearly is providing the data and maintaining the high quality of the supply. U.S. government agencies have the data and only they can provide it to the Dashboard and the IATI registry.

In addition, I think we can all agree that it is the private sector (companies, NGOs, academia) that has proved its innovative ability in visualizing data. So, the principal U.S. government effort should be on providing comprehensive, high quality, timely data, along with basic visualization that presents the data in simple, understandable formats. The raw data must be accessible to those who can manipulate the data. The government should encourage others—third parties and infomediaries—to create the exciting and varied visualization, possibly even offering an “X prize” for particularly creative and usable visualizations that respond to the needs of users.

Ensuring Comprehensive & Quality Data

The data and the platforms that present it will be widely used only when the data is complete—comprehensive, timely, comparable, searchable, easy to access and also shared and promoted. Only then will data be useful for sophisticated analysis and in-depth research, or to answer simple questions such as how much is being spent in a specific village for education or health. For that to happen, agencies must fully comply with their commitment to IATI, the only databank that when fully invested with data will be truly global and timely.

U.S. agencies are facing two deadlines. Most immediately is the 2014 Publish What You Fund Aid Transparency Index, with June 30th as the closing date for collecting data for the assessment. MCC scored first overall in the 2013 ATI, an accomplishment that rewarded strong management leadership and technical capacity. That ranking in the new index is at risk as the MCC’s complete, XML IATI-formatted data has inextricably 10 months later not yet moved from the Dashboard to the IATI registry. The new and current data is due to be published sometime this month. We all would like to see other U.S. agencies do well and are hoping that USAID and the Department of State, which together are responsible for about 75 percent of U.S. assistance dollars, are working to meet that June 30th date by publishing data that is comprehensive and of high quality.

Why US Interests Include the IATI

More importantly, it is only 18 months before the due date on the U.S. commitment to be fully compliant with IATI. In over 3 years the U.S. has made only moderate progress toward that goal. What is needed is a clear path forward—a detailed, costed management plan to meet that commitment. To do that requires concerted political will and leadership, which will come only if there is an understanding that a robust IATI data registry is in the US interest.

There is no better demonstration of that interest than Haiti. Aid coordination is nice in theory and can work at the level of general policy, but it is impossible when there are 20 or 50 donor agencies, 10-20 international organizations, and hundreds of NGOs implementing projects in a country. How do you coordinate thousands of projects? You don’t! But what you can do is have a common registry so that when a donor or an NGO decides to undertake an activity it can see who else is putting what funds for what purpose in a particular region of the country. So the Ministry of Finance knows what aid money is coming into the country, in what sectors and regions, and therefore can better allocate its own resources and engage donors in an informed conversation on priorities and where to allocate resources.

The American government and the American people want our assistance to be effective: to be effective we must allocate aid smartly, which requires knowing the full range of resources and activities that are present in a sector and region. To end with a notion expressed by MCC Vice President Sheila Herrling at the recent launch of the new Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network policy paper, The Way Forward:“What $50 billion-a-year company would not want good data to inform its operations!”