“A true data revolution”: this is what the High Level Panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon described as necessary if we are to eradicate extreme poverty as part of the next generation of Millennium Development Goals. The panel’s emphasis was welcome recognition that improving the quality, opening up access, and making better use of data and statistics are fundamental to achieving transformative development results.
A key first step is expanding the accessibility of data about aid investments. On Tuesday, USAID published unprecedented amounts of financial information about how and where we spend our dollars. The data contains USAID’s financial obligations and disbursements by transaction, along with qualitative information that describes the “how”, including award titles and vendor names.
The transactions can be found on the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, which is managed by the Department of State, in line with the requirements set forth in the OMB Bulletin 12-01 (PDF). They have also been converted into the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) format, so they are comparable to data reported by other countries and donors.
As Administrator Shah pointed out, the 30 fields and 53,000 records represent several firsts for USAID. Not to mention that the data is coming directly from our corporate financial system of record – in that sense we are exposing the inner workings or “guts” of the Agency’s systems, warts and all.
Yet making reams of data available has limited impact if it is seldom used. The power of the Dashboard lies in its ability to present the data visually in a way that is intuitive and easy for a user who is familiar with point-and-click technology to ask questions and get real-time answers.
That’s also why USAID is collaborating so closely with the other U.S. agencies that deliver foreign assistance, to ensure a consistent application of the IATI standard and a coordinated submission to the IATI registry. Just as IATI’s standard format makes foreign assistance comparable from different countries, a consistent application ensures comparability across US government agencies.
Our ultimate goal is development impact. We are seeking to make the data useful and be used to help partner countries more effectively manage the resources from USAID-funded commitments, and to improve our coordination and harmonization with other donors, both public and private. Usefulness also increases accountability, so that citizens, both in partner countries and here in the United States, can use the information to question and hold their governments to account.
We recognize that this data set isn’t perfect and are committed to refining it. As it is mashed up with other data and analysis is performed, we look forward to learning how we might increase our impact. Whereas money is the currency of our financial capital (and the primary preoccupation of the aid community), data is the currency of information, learning and knowledge – our intellectual capital. As a community, there is still enormous potential in understanding and deploying data and determining how it can be most useful, and we at USAID look forward to pushing ourselves to maximize its impact.