What will it take for IATI to bear fruit?

The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) has rallied over 500 organizations to publish data on over 600,000 development activities in a machine readable, standard format. Yet with the amount of effort, time, and resources put into IATI, what has been the return on the investment? Where are the stories and examples of the data being used for better coordination, better planning, and better investments?

While some publishers are using IATI data in their own websites (see the African Development Bank’s MapAfrica and DfID’s DevTracker), and efforts have been made to use IATI data in country AIMS systems, in truth IATI data has not enjoyed the uptake and reception initially expected.

In response to this challenge, the Initiative for Open Ag Funding (IOAF) decided to explore what it would take to make IATI data “useful, usable, and in-use,” focusing on the agriculture sector. During consultations with agriculture specialists in donor organizations, NGOs, and foundations, we heard the same data needs repeated. Positively, most of the desired data are already published, or capable of being published through IATI. However, most interviewees (1) had never heard of IATI, (2) had heard of it but had never tried using it (some mentioning they had heard it was difficult to use), (3) had tried to use it and found it too hard to use. We also heard that additional missing details or data keep it from being as useful as it might be.

Based on this, we sat down last Friday for an open discussion (with organizations such as Global Integrity, Oxfam, MFAN, R4D, SPRING, and Global Giving) about how to make IATI usable, ensure it is used, and how to gather the stories of use. We left with a set of lessons learned, steps that the IOAF will be taking, and a few recommendations to the IATI community.

Identify a (specific) user
IATI was first created with the understanding that there are a variety of users and use cases. While this may seem logical, casting too broad a net means not having a target audience to check with and make sure that the data is what they need, and in a format they can use. Different users need different data in different formats: for example, the US Senate is much more interested in USAID’s country or sectoral allocations, while a local non-profit in Tanzania wants to see sub-national allocations.

Through IOAF, we have taken on this issue, specifying one user group to investigate: “Agriculture specialists and practitioners who are trying to decide how to make the best agriculture investments.” One of our next steps is to identify agriculture specialists at the cusp of this decision process, and determine how IATI can help them answer key questions. This would include identifying what gaps in IATI data may keep them from answering questions they care about most. By selecting a specific user group, we are starting to answer “who” the user is, and how they can -- or want to -- use IATI data. We hope this method can be used for reaching and engaging other target IATI user groups.

Ensure IATI data is really usable
The IATI standard was designed to be machine readable, and allow for the amalgamation of data from various organizations into a single standard format. The expectation was that the data would then be used in various tools and for various purposes. While this has started to happen, it is still quite common to hear that IATI data is “hard to use.”

Why? First, even though IATI is a standard, how and what organizations publish still varies. For example, MCC and USAID have different delivery models, meaning their data looks a bit different from each other. Another example is the issue of traceability: when publishers don’t publish organizations involved in a project, it makes it difficult to follow the flow of funds, and can lead to double-reporting as more and more NGOs and Donors begin to publish to IATI. This issue of traceability (following funding flows from the beginning to end) is one that the IOAF is trying to tackle by providing direct technical assistance to help organizations understand how to publish data.

<p>Comparison of MCC (top) and USAID (bottom) IATI data</p>
Comparison of MCC (top) and USAID (bottom) IATI data

Secondly, there still is not an easy way for non-technical users to access the data -- despite a series of tools for this purpose. There continues to be a plea for tools that make the data more accessible. As one discussion participant noted, this is even more important if we want users in countries where data capacity is low.

This week IOAF is hosting a Tool Accelerator Workshop focused specifically on prototyping tools to make IATI easier to publish and easier to use, with a focus on our identified user-agriculture specialists and practitioners. We are bringing together over 20 different organizations made up of software developers, agriculture specialists, technical experts, and IATI specialists to devise new and improved tools that speak to the needs of publishers and agriculture specialists. We hope that the tools developed will make it much easier for potential data users to access and understand the data, and make it easier to publish the type of data that users need.

Get users to use the data
Once the user is identified and data needed are specified, and once the tools are created to fit these needs, how do we get the rest of the user group (agriculture specialists in our case) aware of and using the tool? By using targeted outreach -- acknowledging that each user group will have their own methods for coordination, news, and accessing resources.

The second (trickier question): Whose responsibility is this outreach? The answer: Ours! We as the IATI community -- Donors, CSOs, NGOs, and open data evangelists -- should be picking up the resource baton and carrying it to users. While the IOAF has started this process within the agriculture sector, there is a gaping need within the IATI community to organize outreach to all of its diverse user groups. Instead of spending time pointing fingers at whose responsibility it is to make IATI data used, we should be thinking strategically about how we can increase the use of the data.

This should be important to us as organizations because we want development practitioners, policy makers, and investors armed with the best possible data as they decide where to invest, who to work with, and how to implement.

Clear up the feedback process
A process for providing user-based feedback to IATI is critical for the method we've described to improve its usefulness. Institutions such as OECD have formal structures for input and feedback, while local systems (Aid Information Management Systems) have the benefit of easy, regular coordination methods and focal points that are often just a call away. IATI currently has three methods for gathering feedback: (1) open consultation calls when planning specific upgrades to the standard (2) Technical Advisory Group (TAG) meetings, of which the next one will take place this March in Tanzania, and (3) the IATI Discuss platform which allows for constant conversation, questions, and comments about applications of the standard.

For those who know where to look, there are multiple ways to provide feedback. However, what remains unclear -- especially for those not as familiar with the IATI community -- is the process by which suggestions are accepted or rejected. This can be especially ambiguous when recommendations focus on definitions and use application rather than specific changes to the standard that necessitate an official upgrade. Clear signposting of the processes around accepting recommendations could make it easier for data users to engage and provide feedback on data needs.

But how will we know IATI is being used?
While it’s impossible to record every use case, publishers need the reassurance that data is being used. Specifically, sending user stories and feedback to data publishers can provide this reassurance, and support the continued production of high-quality, useful information.

IATI has a sturdy trunk to build upon, but the data must be rooted in user demand in order for it to bear fruit. IOAF has started to develop the connection between IATI data and agriculture specialists, but it will take a larger effort from the IATI community to make sure similar efforts are made among other data user groups. While organizations should be thinking how they can play a role in improving the use and update of IATI, a larger conversation should be had around developing strategies for reaching the diverse users IATI aims to support.

Image: Toshihiro Gamo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0