OpenAg at IATI Technical Advisory Group

Photo by: Winnie Kamau
OpenAg joins the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) Meeting for the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

Jambo! Last week OpenAg joined many other members of the IATI Community (over 150!) in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to participate in TAG 2017, the meeting of the Technical Advisory Group. Along with representatives from partner governments, international institutions, civil society organizations, developers, and many others, we spent four days discussing how to make IATI more accessible and useful to those who weren’t present, such as program managers, data analysts, advocates, journalists (in a word, data ‘users’). From the first moment of the first day, the TAG Chair--Mr. John Adams, Head of Business Innovation at the United Kingdom's Department for International Development--encouraged us to listen to users, understand their needs, and identify with them, because in the end we’re all IATI users.

TAG 2017 had many firsts. For starters, it was the first TAG event held in Africa, a nod to the changing composition and growing diversity of the IATI community. In light of this, the event kicked off with the first ever “Community Day” where users both familiar and unfamiliar with the IATI standard met to discuss how they might use IATI data to assess impact, tell data-driven stories, measure progress against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and more. OpenAg joined a session with other agricultural data users to learn how they wanted to use IATI data to improve coordination and collaboration in their own work. Many asked for more information about OpenAg’s tools under development, user research findings, and recommendations for agricultural investment data in IATI. Community Day concluded with users from all around the world sharing stories about what they did or could do with IATI data to change lives and make a difference in their home countries. The stories themselves were inspiring, and the energy displayed by a community of users that rarely convenes in person was truly remarkable.

The next two days featured presentations, lightning talks, and discussions on topics ranging from data quality to technical tools to what IATI might look like in the future. In between sessions, ideas were sketched on napkins, partnerships were formed over powdered coffee, and animated debates were had between bites of chapati. The focus from Community Day on users and data use persisted, and participants made it a regular practice to question each other by saying, “what’s the use case, here?” On the third day, March 8th, the TAG participants celebrated International Women’s Day by sharing lessons that a woman had taught them in the past month, with bonus points for lessons related to IATI. One such post said the following:

“'Good companies meet demand, great companies create demand.' The IATI community should not simply provide access to more data, but demonstrate the value of using IATI as a vehicle for improved communication, coordination, and collaboration."

TAG 2017 ended with a final ‘first’--”Standards Day.” Gone were the familiar rows of chairs in the plenary hall, replaced by a much more intimate set of tables with microphones and laptop hookups; there was work to be done. In just eight short hours, the technical experts of the TAG presented and debated over 120 proposals for changes to the IATI rules, guidance, and data standard. Some proposals bordered on the mundane--a word added here, an arcane detail tweaked there--while others solicited what, by comparison, can only be described as exuberant and impassioned dillerbation.

One such proposal was developed at the TAG meeting itself by the OpenAg team to answer a fairly simple question: “How do I add a search ‘tag’ to an activity, such as ‘cashew nuts’ or ‘maize production’ so that users can quickly identify whether my project is relevant to them or not?” Participants from other sectors joined in with their own questions. The humanitarians in the room asked, “Where can I tag a project as a response to an ‘earthquake,’ ‘tsunami,’ or both? How would you tag an activity following a disaster like Fukushima?” Several interested in using IATI to measure progress against the SDGs asked, “How can I tag an activity as contributing to multiple goals?” What was OpenAg's proposal to answer these questions, you ask? [This is the part in the blog where you get to choose your own adventure! Select the phrase you most closely identify with to determine where to go next…]

  • “I’m a geek, could I just see your proposal in XML?” Sure.

  • “OK, I know what XML is, but I’d prefer the ‘TL;DR’ version.” Start at paragraph A.

  • “Uhhhhh what’s XML?” Skip to paragraph B.

​Paragraph A (the condensed version of our proposal): The easiest place to put something like a tag for a particular crop or disaster type is in <policy-marker> element. The only problem is that ‘cashew nuts’ and ‘tsunami’ aren’t policies, and this would require users to filter across two different fields, <sector> and <policy-marker>, just to identify relevant areas of activity. Perhaps the more obvious location for such a tag is <sector>, but the schema rules require that all sectors be identified with a percentage for statistical aggregation purposes. Even if the publisher fails to specify a percentage, the schema assumes an even split between all codes as the percentage of funds dedicated to each sector. Our proposal is to add a boolean attribute, @aggregation-status, to secondary <sector> elements so that the default (TRUE) is exactly the status-quo, and the new option (FALSE) allows the publisher to add codes without specifying percentages. This means publishers could continue to use existing sector codes like the OECD DAC CRS purpose codes, while also tagging their activities with something like a sector-specific vocabulary (say, AGROVOC in the ag sector) to provide relevant search terms for easy discovery by data users. In other words...

Paragraph B (for everyone!): Our proposal makes the simple process of adding a search tag possible in a status-quo-friendly, fully backwards-compatible way.

All of these proposals will undergo further consultation before they are presented for acceptance to the IATI Members’ Assembly in June. For now, the OpenAg team is excited to catch up on some sleep, apply aloe to our equatorial sunburns, and get to work on the tools we wireframed last month at the OpenAg Tool Accelerator WorkshopKwaheri!