In Partnership: 11 Years of Investing in Development Data

July 30, 2020 Alena Stern, David Trichler

This is a guest post from Alena Stern and David Trichler. Alena Stern is the former W&M program manager for the AidData Higher Educations Solutions Network award. She is currently a data science fellow at the Urban Institute. David Trichler is the former W&M AidData Director of Operations. He is currently interim Assistant Director at W&M’s Global Research Institute. 

Alena Stern facilitates during USAID HESN TechCon in 2014

In 2008 we realized we had a problem. From a William and Mary senior honors thesis project in 2003, PLAID (Project Level AID) had grown into a team of dozens of faculty and students at William & Mary and Brigham Young University, working together to create the world’s largest database of project-level aid investments, precisely coded by specific activities. But while we had made great progress on creating a rich dataset that powered the publication of numerous academic articles and books, as PLAID reached its fifth year in 2008 we wondered how to expand our impact outside of academia.

At the same time, Development Gateway, a spin-off of the World Bank led by Jean-Louis Sarbib, had created a database of development activities called AiDA and were seeking more refined data to improve the tool’s ability to provide analysis to policymakers in areas of foreign assistance, aid allocation, and aid effectiveness.

It was, as they say, a match made in heaven. Mike Tierney, Director of W&M’s Global Research Institute, commented at the time: “We immediately saw the complementarity with Development Gateway’s work. We originally built PLAID to do academic research, but input from the policy community made clear that a publicly accessible database could also promote accountability, coordination, best practices…there is great potential for a much wider audience to benefit from it.”

It was a prescient statement, as an agreement in the fall of 2009 created the AidData partnership and set the foundation for a scaling of evidence-based insights in partnership with dozens of NGOs, governments, and multilateral institutions. A pivotal outcome from AidData included support to establish the international standard for geo-coding aid projects and the adoption and diffusion of this innovation. Prior to this, geocoded aid data had been considered something of a novelty within the policy community. Today of course, it is commonplace for government ministries throughout the world to identify the localities where development projects are implemented and assess whether development assistance is fairly allocated based on need.

David Trichler presents in 2016

In 2012, AidData became one of the founding centers of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, helping to catalyze a geospatial revolution with partners in and beyond the Agency. W&M, in partnership with the terrific Nancy Choi, Josh Powell, and Vanessa Goas leadership team at Development Gateway, implemented a range of activities across multiple continents along with partners at Brigham Young University, University of Texas-Austin, and Esri. Together the group expanded in-county use of more precise data in over a dozen countries, mobilized over 100 researchers to better analyze the impact of development activities, built capacity of USAID missions and community partners to use geocoded data in their work, and ran experiments to identify how to improve the uptake of new data platforms and uses.

In 2015 AidData became an independent research lab at W&M, continuing its partnership with Development Gateway as we continued to leverage our respective strengths in research and in-country implementation on projects in Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Haiti.

Each day, we work in international development because we hope to make things better. While there are highs and lows in the journey, one of the joys in the work is finding those who share similar values and a relentless pursuit of excellence. DG has been just that kind of partner for AidData, and we hope you’ll join us in a toast to them as they celebrate 20 years. We look forward to continuing our work to go faster, and farther, together.


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