This Week: Is Transparent Aid Data a Gateway to More Efficiency and Accountability?
The merits of transparent data often seem self-evident. Nonetheless, Neil Cole of the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative recently remarked that transparency is not the endpoint, but rather a gateway to more efficiency and accountability. Furthermore, he argued that improving budget and aid management within recipient governments should be the priority, and if transparent data misses that mark, it is falling short of its potential. Viewing efforts to make aid information more transparent as one contribution within a larger process forces us to consider the next steps – after the data and various visualization tools are released, who uses these products and to what end?
Aspiring to something beyond transparent data and seeking to spark its meaningful uptake and use requires internalizing the information needs of various audiences. What data is most relevant? In what form should this data be presented to be most useful? What objectives do end users seek to employ this information toward? An academic is likely to use aid data differently than a government or civil society member. Each may require distinct tools or capacity building to interpret and make meaning from the data.
Andrew Palmer of Development Initiatives also alluded to the importance of looking beyond one link in the chain to see the bigger picture, namely, the outstanding need across development for better information, especially regarding the Millennium Development Goals. He rightfully called information an underlying pre-requisite for improved decision-making, but acknowledged that information professionals – the people and organizations that track, measure and protect access to information – come from an array of sectors and backgrounds that do not always work together naturally. Collaboration is necessary to ensure that the data is not only of the best quality possible, but is also readily applicable to a wide range of sectors.
Reflecting on the implications of these points for the open data community, I would argue that while aggregate data has its merits, it might unintentionally reinforce the belief that conditions within a country or across sectors are uniform. In reality, substantial differences and unique patterns may exist when comparing sectors or subnational geographies. This matters when we look ahead to how end users derive meaning from the data to make decisions on aid targeting, programming or evaluation. Governments and development practitioners know that a country is not homogenous, so data should be collected sub-nationally in order to illustrate these differences with evidence. Moreover, data should be published in an organized manner, which reduces the burden of translating already difficult to interpret data. By understanding the questions that people are looking to answer from our data, the organizations working on open aid information can provide more helpful information that improves decision-making.
Althea Lyness is Special Assistant to AidData’s Co-Executive Director and a member of the Communications & Policy Outreach team.