Does Data Drive Your Decisions?

by Amin Vafa, Department of State, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources

The international community has made tremendous strides in promoting aid transparency to help improve accountability and increase donor coordination, and the United States Government is committed to supporting these gains. Our participation in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)—a voluntary, multi-stakeholder transparency initiative where donors, partner countries, civil society organizations, and implementers report aid data into a common standard—reflects just one of the ways we are committed to this cause. Donors publish their data to the IATI Registry, where it is integrated with data provided by other stakeholders and can be sorted by recipient country. The Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), through ForeignAssistance.gov, implement a whole-of-government approach to report data to the IATI Registry from the federal agencies that oversee foreign assistance programs.

Beyond serving as a repository for information, IATI is a data standard that anyone can use to understand aid flows with a goal of better coordinating resources and holding donors accountable. But are people using the rich data provided by IATI to inform their decisions and research? Publishing data to IATI is a step toward transparency, but as the old saying goes “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” How can we encourage a wide set of stakeholders to access the data available through IATI and use it to improve foreign assistance decisions, accountability, and transparency?

At the recent IATI Members’ Assembly we discussed objectives for IATI’s data use strategy and engaged with other members from government, civil society, and the donor community on key data use questions. Conversations focused on impediments to data use, such as data quality and accessibility and ways IATI members can support stakeholders to apply available data to the fullest potential. Some participants showcased how they are encouraging increased data use by making data more accessible and creating demand for data quality. Examples included the Open Aid Publishers’ Toolchain, developed by the Initiative for Open Ag Funding, which uses machine learning and natural language processing to geocode program data and add searchable tags, and D-Portal, a user-friendly platform stakeholders can use to visualize and download IATI files by country. You can read more about the Members’ Assembly meeting here.

Building on discussions from the IATI Members’ Assembly, Publish What You Fund and InterAction recently hosted an event, “Using Aid Data: Practical Next Steps,” inviting participants from government, civil society, foundations, and the private sector to access and apply IATI data to answer aid related questions. Attendees were surprised by the breadth of information contained in the IATI files and expressed an interest in using the data to guide initial research on different foreign assistance sectors, investments within specific countries, or donor approaches. Participants also identified a number of hurdles to data use, echoing some of the challenges discussed at the IATI Members’ Assembly. Participants expressed reticence to use IATI data for decision making without fully understanding gaps in published data. Others were intimidated by the highly technical nature of IATI files and did not realize that IATI data are available in accessible, machine readable files. Attendees left the event with a better understanding of how to access IATI data—an important step toward increasing use. The points raised underscore that much more must be done to facilitate user interaction with foreign assistance data—especially with regard to awareness and quality.

The Department of State and USAID want to help people better understand and use U.S. foreign assistance data. We continuously receive feedback from users and actively incorporate suggested changes into the U.S. IATI file. For example, in response to user demand for simplified files that are easier to access, the U.S. file has been reduced to one hierarchy from three, resulting in a smaller file size, a more user-friendly format, and less duplication of data.

We invite those concerned about aid transparency and accountability to visit ForeignAssistance.gov and the U.S. IATI file at the IATI Registry and share their impressions with us. With such a diverse range of stakeholders accessing foreign assistance information, data must remain broad enough to inform, flexible enough to meet a variety of needs, and—most importantly—easy to use.

How do you use data to inform your work? To improve lives around the world? Share your stories with the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources.

IATI Annual Members’ Assembly participants in Rome, Italy on October 3, 2017 Photo By: IFAD/Flavio Ianniello