Forget about Busan! Aid transparency in 2012
To be honest, I do not care too much, if the next High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan next month produces a strong commitment to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) or not. The future of aid transparency will not be decided in Busan. There are three reasons for this.
First of all, in my understanding, a new international declaration is not what is needed to advance aid transparency generally or IATI specifically. The basic principle of aid transparency has already been agreed by the international community in the Accra Agenda for Action (AAA). We cannot really get a broader consensus about aid transparency. The only existing comprehensive and open standard to implement the AAA is IATI. Of course, the data actually published in IATI standard is not very much yet. But the number of important donors supporting IATI and planning to publish according to this standard is to big to let IATI fail. Particularly since there is no real alternative. Where would donors turn who decide to become more transparent following an international standard? Is it more likely for BRICs like Brazil, South Africa and Mexico, all members of the Open Government Partnership, or India who are at least planning to create an open data platform, to publish to the OECD DAC Creditor Reporting System or to IATI?
The second reason I am not too concerned about the outcome of Busan is the pull of the open data movement. Open data is here to stay. Governments, local authorities, NGOs and companies will have to come to terms with it. Last weeks' Open Government Data Camp in Warsaw demonstrated that open data is gaining ground in three ways: geographically, politically and conceptually.
While open data was a niche issue only two or three years ago, there are now open data initiatives in most countries of the world. The number of government open data platforms is rising steadily and most countries have a few examples for citizens' initiatives, hackdays and open data events. The only continent relatively untouched so far is Africa. But the Kenyan open data platform and the global attention it attracted is sending out a strong signal to neighbouring countries.
Open data is also gaining political ground. As several speakers of the OGDCamp in Warsaw highlighted, open data activists are no longer working on the outside of institutions – they are invited to board rooms, to government consultations and – as in the case of the Worldbank – employed as internal open data evangelists. This development is illustrated by the recent creation of a community of practice by the Worldbank and the Web Foundation with the goal to mainstream open data.
But while many open data examples are still about public finances and government held data, the open data trend is also gaining ground conceptually. Three open data initiatives presented in Warsaw highlighted this development in a succinct way: Chris Taggart has lobbied for some time for open data from companies and has already collected basic information from millions of companies at the opencorporates website. Lists of companies are a prerequisite for Oystein Jacobsen's beautiful application Informedindividual.org that allows consumers to get comprehensive product information by scanning a product code with a smart phone. Depending on your individual consumer preferences and social concerns (labor conditions of company, environmental impact of production, nutritious details, etc.) you choose products and find retailers that offer the type of products you want. All this is only possible if companies publish open data about their work. The most daring initiative for me is certainly Simon Redfern's Open Bank Project, that aims at publishing bank transactions of companies, organisations and individuals online. While most people would find this project more than unrealistic, a bank like Credit Agricole, has contacted Redfern to learn more about this project. Open data initiatives are becoming bolder. What was unthinkable yesterday and is difficult today, will be the norm tomorrow.
Yes, we do need much more open data in development cooperation and yes, a strong support for IATI in Busan is certainly helpful to obtain more data quickly. But the High Level Forum in Busan will not change the fact that open data is becoming more important and that IATI is the only comprehensive open data standard for development cooperation at the moment. In the mid-term I do not expect data availability to be the most critical factor for IATI. This is the third reason why I am only moderately interested in Busan. I think there is a more critical factor, at this point of the process, that determines the success or the failure of IATI: the re-use of data.
Without re-use open data is no use at all! We may have good arguments for publishing open data, but if we can not encourage re-use of aid data in the coming year and present convincing use cases for open data, then IATI and open aid data have a serious problem. So from my understanding, in 2012 we need to focus on re-use and on reaching out to potential users of data: watchdog organisations, advocacy groups, taxpayers unions, consumer groups, civil society networks, parliamentarians, migrant communities from developing countries, citizens in developing countries, researchers, companies and the media. All these stakeholders rely on information for their work - open aid and development data should be a core element of their work. It is crucial to raise awareness Only if potential users of data are involved in open data initiatives will it be possible to determine which data sets are most relevant and which applications are actually making a difference. Only if the potential users are aware of the potential of open data, will they be able to develop businesses around data, improve services and demand the release of more open data. At this point in time, it is the focus on data re-use that can catalyse a virtuous circle of open data.