The truth will out

Knowledge brokering09 Feb 2011Hapee de Groot, Mendi Njonjo

The ultimate goal should be transparency across the board. Western governments and their public administration bodies should agree to voluntarily publish their data through an open data system. So should governments from developing countries. One recurring criticism of development aid in the West is that people are wary of what happens to aid money once it reaches its destination. Perhaps it should be a condition that all international agencies, such as donors and aid-receiving countries, publish their data to make the aid process transparent. The World Bank is an example to follow in this respect. It has published its raw data and is offering an API developed by the Guardian newspaper to provide online readers with relevant information.

Indeed, research has shown that political transparency in donor countries significantly impacts how they allocate their resources for development assistance. Jörg Faust of the German Development Institute found that donor transparency led to more donor government accountability and aid being allocated more according to the needs of recipient countries. This confirmed the research hypothesis that ‘higher levels of political transparency – the ease with which the public can monitor the government – are conducive for limiting the impact of special interests on policy-making.’ In other words, donor transparency leads to more effective aid.

It is also clear, in more general terms, that when decisions are made in an environment where they are publicly documented – which means those making them can be held to account – this not only boosts democratic decision making, but also allows people to make more informed choices. And this, in turn, is a key ingredient of freedom and development.

Open data systems are already being used in the development sector. An exciting example is from sub-Saharan Africa, where the use of ICT for transparency by governments is growing rapidly. The Social Development Network, an NGO founded in 1994 in Kenya, has developed the Budget Tracking Tool, for example, which makes government data open to the public, who can interact with this data by means of data mining and SMS querying. Users can obtain information from the database by sending SMSs from their mobile phones.

Together, this creates a system where government data can be compared to what is collected through citizen participation. This system improves the dissemination of data to the public, but equally importantly, it allows people to feed data back into the system. Kenyan citizens are therefore in a position to examine the national development budget in detail and hold their elected officials accountable for the development projects they have promised.

Another example is Aidinfo, a project that researches the current supply and demand for information related to aid. It hosts the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), which aims, in its own words, ‘to make information about aid spending easier to access, use and understand’. Thanks to these initiatives, there is ‘now broad agreement,’ as Aidinfo puts it, ‘among donors on publishing the details of who is doing what, where that represent around 75% of the approximately US$120 billion in global aid.’ This is an encouraging start and should at some point lead to a profusion of open data on past, present and planned aid activities.

Eighteen developing countries endorse IATI , and the organization’s signatories include the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the European Commission and the United Nations Development Programme. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working towards publishing biannual reports that outline the results of Dutch international development aid, but as yet the ministry has not been able to put this into practice. There are no Dutch donors currently among IATI’s members, but at least two are considering it. The main stumbling block is that as the owner of the data, the ministry still wants to control the availability of the data. Again, the World Bank serves as an example of how it should be. They have started to publish raw data, and leave the interpretation of this data to others.

IATI’s goal is to make aid information available and accessible in a systematic manner that grants the public a voice in government accountability. In addition to making data available in the first place, new technologies also make it possible to publish data immediately. These two factors, in turn, will also give the public a clearer, more timely picture of humanitarian and development needs and opportunities.

The UN Global Pulse, which monitors ‘the impact of compound crises on vulnerable populations’, is a good example, albeit on a smaller scale, of what can be accomplished in terms of aid transparency by sharing measurable results. It strives to ‘close the information gap between the onset of a global crisis and the availability of actionable information to protect the vulnerable.’ The ultimate goal is to use the information it generates to alert the international community about the ‘impacts of crisis on vulnerable populations early on’ so something can still be done about it. This will also help the international community plan better for future crises.

Another Kenyan project is Mzalendo’s has a website in Swahili that allows the public to ‘keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament’. The government makes available parliamentary proceedings via a printed copy of the ‘Hansard’, an edited record of parliamentary proceedings. Mzalendo publishes this information online, and builds other tools around this information (minister profiles, for example). It also allows people to provide feedback on the platform on parliamentary proceedings and ministerial performances.

These examples present a compelling case for open data. Software experts need to be mobilized to develop state-of-the-art open data systems that facilitate the sharing of information across the broadest base possible. The good news is that there are ever more options for using data and information meaningfully. These options for opening up data enable more people to transform it into usable formats.

The open data system used in public transport seems to support this premise. Adam DuVander of ProgrammableWeb, a community of API developers, introduced StreetFilms, an example of processing data based on the Boston Transit Agency’s decision to publish timetables and routes in a similar way to weather information. Within an hour of publication, people were able to see bus locations in real time on Google Earth, and within two days people could track bus locations on their computers.

Within five weeks, iPhone and Android apps were developed for this purpose. These tools were created by different developers, none of whom was employed by the Transit Authority, even though the data had always been traditionally ‘owned’ by the latter. However, while relinquishing ownership of information might not be an insurmountable obstacle in the public sector, as the example of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs illustrates, it is a more sensitive issue for governments.

So the trick now is to persuade more governments and donor agencies to open up their data and create the preliminary conditions for transparency. For the time being, Putting governments under pressure seems the best way of achieving this. Whether it will always take something of the same magnitude as Wikileaks remains to be seen. The technology, in any case, is there, as are some initial signs of willingness, by the Kenyan government, for example. Willingness and technology, these are the catalysts for change.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the authors’ own and do not reflect the opinions of ATTI, Hivos or Omidyar Network.