NGO Aid Map: Two Years Older and Wiser

Open data, or “data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone” – combined with standards that make that data comparable across organizations – is being touted as one of the keys to improving philanthropy and international aid. The thinking is that by making aid information easier to combine, access and use, accountability for aid resources will improve, funding will go where it’s needed most, and opportunities for corruption will be reduced. This belief has powered initiatives such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), foundations’ Reporting Commitment initiative and DFID’s Aid Transparency Challenge.

InterAction shares this belief, and in 2010 we launched our own open data initiative – NGO Aid Map. Over the past two years, we’ve collected information on more than 3,600 projects from more than 100 organizations, covering work in 80-plus countries. We’ll be launching three new sub-sites this year – on China, India and Mexico – and have plans for even greater expansion.

Like many open data advocates, however, we realize that the impact of initiatives like ours remains to be proven. As several speakers noted at the official launch of the OpenGovHub last week, the goal is not transparency for transparency’s sake. Or, as USAID officials have noted in talking about their own transparency efforts, to release vast amounts of information that “just sit there.” Ultimately, the goal is use – individuals and organizations acting on that data in ways that actually lead to improvements in people’s lives.

That’s why in November 2011, we began conducting what we originally termed an evaluation but would more accurately be described as an assessment of NGO Aid Map. This assessment primarily consisted of a survey and interviews with key target groups, including InterAction members participating in the initiative, InterAction members not contributing information, businesses, U.S. government agencies and other donors. We also looked at our statistics on traffic to the site and did a review of the site’s data quality, which is critical to the initiative’s success.

This post is meant as the kick-off for a series in which we’ll share what we’ve learned from the assessment and our experience over more than two years. We’ll also describe the challenges we’ve encountered and continue to struggle with. Some of the questions we’ll address include:

  • Why do organizations provide information? Are they likely to continue doing so, and on a regular basis?
  • Who is using the information on NGO Aid Map, and for what?
  • How do we balance the demand for data from more and different types of organizations with the need to ensure a sufficient level of data quality (and our own capacity)?
  • What are some of the key things those seeking to undertake an effort like this keep in mind?

One of the things that has pleasantly surprised us in doing this work is the number of times people have contacted us to tell us that NGO Aid Map is a model for their own mapping efforts. In fact, that seems to be one of the initiatives’ greatest – or at least most easily identifiable – successes: illustrating what is possible. If nothing else, we hope this series of blog posts provides some helpful guidance to those seeking to undertake similar efforts. More than that, though, we hope it contributes to the learning about what works and doesn't work when it comes to open data and aid transparency initiatives. 

Laia Grino is Manager of Transparency, Accountability and Results at InterAction. Read the other posts in this blog series: We Built It. Have They Come?, We Built It. Have They Come (Part 2: Making It Easy to Participate)?, The Tricky Question of Use, and Balancing More Data with Data Quality