A Call to Do More with Data

March 10, 2015

On Wednesday, February 25th, 2015, AidData co-hosted a consultation event at the OpenGov Hub with U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Assistance Resources office, the U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID), and Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) under the theme of “Do More With Data.” The following are the closing remarks given by Nancy McGuire Choi, AidData Co-Executive Director and Development Gateway Senior Director of Operations.

I have really enjoyed this morning’s event. In particular, I was struck by the degree of openness–fitting for a discussion on open data — as well as the palpable humility and spirit of partnership as so many US Government agencies and the aid transparency community came together due to a common belief that open government is better government. But the more we unpack what this means, the more we peel back new layers of complexity and must grapple with the reality that openness is a difficult process to carry out. It’s fraught with technical, institutional, cultural, and procedural challenges, and the political reality that we have to show results today, when in fact this massive effort of building up both the supply and the demand sides of data is still relatively nascent and takes time. All of that said, today’s event gives me lots of reason for optimism.

I’d like to highlight four key takeaways:

1. Collecting data sounds easy, but in practice, has many dimensions. There is a lot of talk about how, both in the US Government and in developing countries, there isn’t data to be liberated – it just doesn’t exist sometimes. Where and once data do exist, the problem is exacerbated by the challenges of interoperability, and getting systems that predated the aid transparency agenda to actually talk to each other. We’ve heard about the implications for human resources involved, the manual work that must be done, and the associated costs. Greater automation is crucial, and standards like IATI play a key role. Both are evolving.

2. In the fervor to create, liberate, and improve the supply of data, let’s never forget: Open data for whom? Open data for what? Aid effectiveness doesn’t just underpin greater accountability here in the US, but it is vital for the people whom this assistance serves in developing countries, who need this information for their own public investment decisions. This underlines the need for the essential but unglamorous work of building national statistical systems. It is also crucial for the citizens who need this information to participate in feedback loops and have a greater voice in how resources are being used. Listening to those on the ground tell us what sort of data would be most useful to them is both the smart thing and the right thing to do. And we know, that the more local the audience and the decisions to be made, the more granular the data probably needs to be. In developing countries, more data, more tools, and stronger skills to analyze and interpret data still isn’t sufficient. We’re talking about how to embed data in the decision-making processes of leaders, such that data use becomes routine and expected. And from the bottom up, how to make citizen participation in the creation and consumption of data also part of everyday life.

3. The US Government is doubling down on investments to advance the open data agenda. From the placement of Presidential Innovation Fellows in government agencies, to helping local communities work with Foreign Assistance Dashboard data, to sparking new innovations, to engaging the open data/hacker community – including the upcoming April hackathon – to name a few, USG agencies are leveraging open data champions and good practices. If today is any indication, these investments will continue, hopefully going deeper with existing strategies and expanding to cover new initiatives.

I’d like to mention one initiative in particular that targets one of the biggest aid information gaps – results data. USAID announced yesterday an early stage undertaking, in partnership with AidData, that will create a new machine-readable dataset from the DEC – bringing the potential to unlock new insight from old documents. This is one example of the types of innovations I think we can expect moving forward.

4. We are in the midst of a major culture change. Steve Adler from IBM posed a challenge to us today, urging each of us to really push the envelope and promote the creation and use of data in our own jobs, not to wait for permission, but to lead by example. While it may be easier to pull this off at IBM than in the US Government, we should all take that challenge to heart. This community of practitioners and believers really can have an impact in accelerating and amplifying the impact of open data. I’d like to close by thanking all of you for braving the cold to spend your Wednesday morning with us, and particularly our hosts – the State Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance Resources, Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, USAID’s Global Development Lab, and my AidData colleagues for hosting this event today here at the OpenGov Hub.

For more information about the “Do More With Data” event, please visit the Storify page summarizing notable social media activity.

Image is a screenshot of the beta ForeignAssistance.gov website. This transcript was originally published on AidData’s The First Tranche.

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