Impact Beyond the Numbers: Reflections on Year One of the AidData Center

Just over a year ago, the AidData Center for Development Policy was little more than a big idea to create an information infrastructure of high-quality subnational aid information, data-driven tools, and cutting-edge research to support more effective allocation, coordination, and evaluation of development assistance. Thanks to the investment of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network  (HESN), the AidData Center today exists as a thriving partnership between three universities, one geospatial technology company and a nonprofit organization with extensive experience in aid information management. With one year of implementation behind us, the AidData Center has created a strong foundation that will enable us to bring our big idea to scale in the coming years.

This past year, the AidData Center began geocoding work in five partner countries: Nepal, Senegal, Haiti, Uganda, and Timor-Leste. One hundred and forty student researchers applied precise location information for more than 1,200 development projects in these partner countries, including identifying 21,500 project sites representing $6 billion in commitments from more than 40 donors in Nepal alone. AidData worked with the Ministry of Finance in Nepal to launch a public data portal in order to enable its citizens to easily access and use highly detailed information on aid projects. AidData is currently finishing this process for aid projects in Haiti, Senegal, Uganda and Timor Leste and looks forward to releasing these data sets in the coming months.  

In order to ensure the sustainability of these efforts over time, we embedded an Aid Management Fellow with each of our partner country governments to strengthen local capacity for data collection, management, and analysis. AidData also sent 11 AidData Summer Fellows abroad to promote data literacy and capacity in using geocoded aid information among local development stakeholders. Throughout the year, AidData staff and students trained 600 development professionals and engaged 220 civil society and academic organizations in the use of geocoded information.

Photo credit: Sara Rock. 

It’s easy to measure progress in numbers, especially for an organization focused on collecting and publishing data. We start with a number, but, behind that number, there are people accessing the information, applying the data to development questions and using it to better inform solutions. We are beginning to see the first signs of this data being put to use. In Nepal, AidData summer fellows placed at Kathamandu University inspired the university to incorporate a GIS course into their Master’s for Development Studies program because they realize the potential of geospatial information for addressing development challenges. The government of Nepal’s Development Cooperation Report has integrated geospatial analysis for the first time, which uncovered how little aid was flowing to the Far Western Region of the country, especially in light of poverty rates. USAID Nepal has also integrated this data into its Country Development Cooperation strategy.

We’ve also seen early indications that USAID investments in geocoded data are having a catalytic effect. The transparency pledge that participating governments are taking is contributing to a tipping point in opening up the government’s data. A few short years ago, there was little willingness to make this data public. Now transparency is becoming the new default. USAID investments are prompting other donors to pick up the cause and support government aid transparency efforts with funding of their own. 

While we have taken significant steps forward this year, we look forward to what year two will bring. In the coming year, we will begin work with the governments of Honduras, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to geocode their aid information, as well as launch an AidData Research Consortium of 100 scholars using subnational information to analyze the distribution and impact of development assistance.

This weekend, the College of William & Mary, Colonial Williamsburg, and AidData will host all seven university development labs involved in USAID’s HESN in Williamsburg, Virginia to discuss what has been accomplished across the network in the past year and brainstorm innovative ideas to scale our accomplishments in the coming years. We look forward to identifying new areas of collaboration, sharing ideas, and engaging students as engines of innovation in addressing development’s most pressing challenges.

Follow the conference on Twitter and Facebook at #HESNTechCon.

Ellie Kaufman is a Communications Associate for AidData. Alena Stern is the AidData Program Manager for the USAID HESN Award.

Tags: USAIDgeo-referencinggeocodingopen developmentNepalKathmandu UniversityKathmanduHESNaid transparencyopen dataaid effectiveness