What We Learned: Looking Back at “Do More with Data”

Last week, MFAN and AidData, in cooperation with the State Department and USAID, hosted Do More with Data: Moving U.S. Government Aid Transparency Forward, an event that brought together internal and external drivers of U.S. government foreign assistance transparency to explore ongoing and new efforts for making data more readily available for more people. Following the event, we asked three of MFAN’s leading thinkers on transparency and accountability to share their takeaways from the event. See below for thoughts from George Ingram, Lori Rowley, and Diana Ohlbaum and see here for a Storify of the Twitter activity from the event.

George Ingram, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and MFAN Co-Chair

A big takeaway from what was a very open and enlightening discussion is the contrast between the commitment and understanding by U.S. government foreign affairs officials of the importance of open data and the data “disarray” within those agencies.  Officials at the meeting advocated strongly for the value of transparency in foreign assistance data, and this advocacy is seen in the forward position the U.S. is taking in the international discussions around a post-2015 set of sustainable development goals. But, with the possible exception of the MCC, U.S. foreign affairs agencies are incapable of practicing that commitment. Agencies have multiple internal data systems that lack inter-operability and do not allow communication or sharing of data between agencies. U.S. agencies are good at tracking financial data – at feeding the accountants – but wholly inadequate in providing information of what is spent where, how, and with whom – on getting critical program data in the hands of program managers and stakeholders.

As one speaker put it, who are we to be telling developing country officials about open data.  It is good to see officials from the Department of State and USAID taking data transparency seriously, but, as someone suggested, there is still the problem of moving it up the chain of priorities – until it becomes a real priority, progress will be slow and inadequate.

Lori Rowley, Director, Global Food Security and Aid Effectiveness at The Lugar Center and MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chair

There were a host of positives that came out of this event for me. First and foremost was the large number of people who took the time to attend and participate in the event, a reinforcement that data is relevant and useful to a host of people throughout the public and private sectors.  It was a full house!

Next, as the facilitator of a breakout session with Catherine Marschner of the MCC, the agency known as the leader within the U.S. Government on data transparency, I was reminded again of the vital role of leadership in accomplishing open data goals. As far ahead as the MCC is in reporting its data to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), Catherine reminded the group that there are technical challenges that take time to work through in order to achieve reporting goals. The opportunity for a dialogue with Catherine among other agency representatives was also a great positive of the event.  Often agency representatives are working in a vacuum with regard to their data and reporting requirements and it is just one portion of their jobs, but the event gave them the venue to ask detailed questions, get recommendations for solutions, and support each other in their common goals.

Finally, just as we at MFAN regularly remind ourselves and others, demand for timely, reliable data must continue to grow in order for government managers to continue to see the relevance of ensuring its openness. This point was reinforced by government data managers at the event.

Diana Ohlbaum, Independent Consultant and MFAN’s Accountability Working Group Co-Chair

The event helped crystallize for me four separate types of open data needing focus.

The first is the one we are all familiar with: data that is collected but not published, often due to technical problems in extracting good data from existing systems.  In all likelihood, this will ultimately require the creation of new systems and processes for tracking foreign assistance activities and spending.

The second is data that is collected but not shared, such as the missing data from USDA, the Defense Department, and other agencies that have been less than forthcoming with the Dashboard requirements.  Although there are some technical issues at play here, what seems to be missing is a sense of urgency or priority on the part of these agencies.

The third type of missing data is one we are just beginning to grapple with: data that is not even collected by some agencies, such as project-level data.  This data will be needed not only to fulfill our IATI commitment, but also to provide the types of information that are most useful to local stakeholders, yet there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan in place to begin collecting it.

Finally, there is information that is already available and easily publishable, but not centrally collected, indexed, or linked to the Dashboard.  Most of this is what we call “unstructured data” – things like Country Development Cooperation Strategies, project descriptions, answers to Congressional questions for the record, and the wide variety of informational materials that Missions hand out locally.  Although they are not machine-readable or useful for high-level data analysis, these Word documents and PDFs can be extremely valuable to those trying to understand the granular details of a program, project, or policy.

While there are many small solutions, there is only one big solution: a demonstrated political commitment to open data, to using data as a management tool, and to full IATI compliance from the highest levels of each U.S. government department and agency.

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