This Week: The Secret Ingredient to Data Use is Local Voices, But Are We Listening?

Today in Montreal, technologists and policymakers face the same challenge – create new tools and ideas to further open data and aid transparency in the next 36 hours. These experts have gathered together for the Open Data for Development Challenge codathon hosted by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development. They seek innovative solutions to development challenges with the goal of making existing open aid and development data more useful.

The kinds of applications that tech experts at the codathon will begin to develop are a welcome contribution in the ongoing effort to making aid information more accessible and actionable. The open data movement currently faces a few competing priorities. First, we need more publicly accessible data. Second, we need clean, standardized and comparable data, as discussed by Owen Scott in a post last Friday on First Tranche. Third, we need people in developing countries to view the data as easy to find, understand and apply to what they care about.

Following the codathon, the International Aid Transparency Initiative will host its annual Technical Advisory Group meeting on Jan. 29-30 where users and producers of IATI data discuss ideas on how to improve and use that data. Publish What You Fund mapped out five priorities for this year’s TAG meeting, including data quality and use of the data. After five years of the standard’s existence, Publish What You Fund’s Mark Brough believes, “we need to begin looking at how the data is being used… it’s important for improving the quality of the data, as publishers begin to see the interesting things that they can do if they release data.”

With the public launch of Nepal’s Aid Management Platform in June 2013, we are beginning to see how civil society organizations, government officials, and citizens are using the data to make aid allocation more effective. Is Nepal to be the exception or the norm in data uptake and use? There is a thriving open data community in the country, and about 24 percent of the population has Internet access according to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority. As work continues in Haiti, Senegal, Timor-Leste, and Uganda to produce and publish more public aid information, the development community needs to think critically about building the capacity of local citizens to use this data productively in order to further their goals.

Members of the Center for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research, Extension, and Development, a local civil society organization in Nepal, learn how to use GIS software and access information now available on the public AMP portal after its release. AidData Summer Fellow Madeline Clark worked with their organization during the summer of 2013.  

Last week at an Internet.org hackathon, software developers grappled with the challenge of creating cell phone applications for their products that will work in developing countries with varying levels of Internet access. Internet.org is a coalition of tech companies including Facebook, Nokia, and Samsung dedicated to bringing the Internet to two-thirds of the planet that isn’t already online. Matt Honan writes in Wired, “the mobile internet in the developing world is a fundamentally different beast than the one we typically talk about. That includes everything from the devices people use to the plans they purchase and the networks they run them on.”

As we create applications for open data in international development, let’s make sure that we consider the audience. Making aid transparent for policymakers, practitioners and taxpayers in lending countries is valuable, but if we want to make aid information useful for developing countries, we need to understand the concerns, constraints and opportunities of citizens and CSOs in those countries. Internet.org’s efforts to create applications that explicitly fit the needs of developing countries is a good start. Now it’s time for the development community to do the same.

Ellie Kaufman is a Communications Associate at AidData based at the College of William & Mary.

Tags: open dataCanadian Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and DevelopmentOpen Data for Development ChallengeMontrealTAGiatiNepalAMPCEAPREDInternet.org