4 Ways to Bring Sexy Back to the US Government's Open Data Strategy

The US Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently released its Guidance on Collection of U.S. Foreign Assistance Data prompting well-deserved praise from the Center for Global Development in Hooray for Unsexy OMB Data Guidance. The virtues of the OMB guidance include "a presumption in favor of openness," additional checks on data quality, and no (foreseen) delays to the IATI reporting of US agencies.

The bulletin is justly lauded as a huge step forward in USG transparency efforts, but are there quick ways in which the guidance could become more "sexy" and impactful? I am Josh Powell and I think so. Here are a few of my suggestions to bring "sexy" back to the US government's Open Data strategy:

1. Create metadata for sub-national data on aid activities

Notably absent in the 119 data fields prescribed by the OMB is any sub-national information on data. At the moment, geocoding represents an optional section in the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Activity Standard, but this should not prevent the USG from allowing agencies with this information to provide it in an open, standardized format. For example, USAID has very nice district-level data on many of its activities. In the current OMB data standard, there is no place for this data to be shared.

2. Adopt a more granular sector/purpose classification schema

The sector classification established in the OMB guidance provides 44 sectors. This schema is limited. For example, there is no way to differentiate between a project designed to provide clean drinking water to a village and one designed to remove toxic waste or to provide training to water sector professionals – each would be rolled into “Water Supply and Sanitation.” Using a more granular sector schema like the OECD DAC’s purpose codes or AidData’s activity codes would provide users with a clearer picture of USG assistance.

3. Let innovators innovate

While the first two points are a bit technocratic, this is perhaps the most important point. Almost by definition, having 22 aid-giving agencies means that there will be leaders and laggards in innovation, efficiency, data quality, and just about everything else. In particular, the USG needs to be careful not to stifle first-movers like the USAID Geospatial Center or the MCC’s Department of Policy and Evaluation. By funneling all USG Foreign Assistance data into one place and format (and adding significant reporting pressures on each agency), opportunities for single-agency reporting on geocoding, outputs and results, or other new frontiers may be limited. As recent progress by MCC (and the resultant imitating from USAID) show, letting one agency take the lead while others catch up can be an extremely fruitful strategy.

4. Focus on accessibility and visualization

My final point also relates to MCC, which has a treasure trove of detailed and innovative data on Results Monitoring and Economic Rates of Return (ERR) that is largely inaccessible to average stakeholders. For example, ERR data for the Morocco compact are buried in 12 excel workbooks, each with 15 worksheets. While the USG Foreign Assistance Dashboards attempt to address this for basic project information, the USG should seek out new ways to make all of its information not only available, but accessible and understandable – data is only important if it is put to use.