Hacking Into Canada’s Aid Data
August 30, 2013
by CARLOS SANTAMARIA
Canada agreed two years to publish its aid data, but most development professionals lack the technological expertise to sift through the pile of information.
That’s why a team of computer programmers, software developers and international development experts met last weekend in Ottawa to work on applications to better analyze the data and thus improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Canadian foreign aid.
Devex spoke to Ian Froude, the organizer of Canada’s first-ever foreign aid “hackathon,” who hopes the event will help to bridge the gap between IT and international development expertise. He mentioned that more investment is needed so in the future development professionals won’t be intimidates by the sheer amount of information available and better understand what this tool can do for policy, programming and field work.
Here are a few excerpts of our conversation with Froude:
How did the idea of using hackers to analyze Canadian data come about? How was the event organized?
I worked for Engineers Without Borders Canada for three years prior to organizing this hackathon. [We were] was focused on campaigning to have Canada sign onto the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Our campaign was successful, when during meetings in Busan in November 2011 then Canadian international development minister Bev Oda, announced that Canada would [join] IATI … and [since then] the Canadian International Development Agency — now [part of] the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development — has worked to publish data according to its IATI implementation plan.
I decided to organize the hackathon for a number of reasons. The first is that Canada needed more engagement with its data. … [More] energy and expertise needs to be spent on international development by citizens and civil society. My goal was to organize a hackathon that would be an injection of energy and enthusiasm into the sector, and that this would lead to more work being done
The second goal of the event was to create a space where citizens, leaders from civil society, and members of the federal government could work together and discuss international development. [I wanted] to contribute to the breaking of barriers between these groups by showing that there are interesting, smart and passionate people working in each of these groups.
You are not development experts but computer technology specialists. Doesn’t that mean you lack full criteria to go over the data?
We addressed this in several ways: By having the hackathon projects submitted by members of the international development sector with years of experience in Canada on policy and programming and abroad in the field; by having those projects screened and reviewed by others engaged in the sector with both field, policy, and programming experience; and lastly, in our hackathon participant recruitment efforts. The participants of the hackathon were split in three rough categories: 18 participants came solely with a technology background, 12 had a mixture of international development and technological background, and the remaining 8 participants had policy, programming and field experience in international development. We felt that this split of experience and expertise made for effective teams, ensuring that each team had diversity of expertise.
To also try to bridge the gap between technological expertise and international development expertise with three speakers giving an overview on why open data is important for international development and how it could be useful, sharing lessons learned from their research on the [positive and negative] impacts of data use in international development, discussing IATI standards and rationale, and analyzing Canada’s aid programs and investments.
What are your main takeaways so far from the data you’ve gone over?
- There is a ton of energy and talent in Canada, and I assume elsewhere, that can convert the masses of data into knowledge and insight that can potentially be used to increase the effectiveness of international development.
- International development policy, programming and field experience is a valuable addition to teams and a hackathon as a whole. This allowed us to ensure that any tools were built for the context that they would be used within.
- Investment is needed to grow the open data in the international development community so that data publishing and analysis continues and that the value actually comes to fruition. Many international development professionals are intimidated by data and all the new terminology that comes with it, there needs to be investment to reduce this intimidation.
Are you planning to send the results of your analysis to the Canadian aid authorities? Have you been in contact with them at all
Yes, we will be sending the results of the projects and the event as a whole, as well as feedback to DFATD on the usability, quality, and quantity of the data that has been released. Participants were asked to provide feedback during and after the event, and I will be compiling this feedback and sharing it with DFATD. I have been in contact with a number of people at the DFATD, and they have expressed interest in the event and its outcomes. We will also be sharing the results with the government other organizations in Canada’s international development sector.
How can hackers help to track aid data? What specific areas of expertise can you offer in this sense?
IT technicians, software developers and hackers can provide value in creating programs and tools that save time, [for instance through] automation of analysis, translate data into useful insight, and translate piles of individual pieces of data into formats that people who don’t have technological expertise can learn from.
More and more aid agencies and NGOs are publishing their data online as part of a worldwide transparency initiative to show how they are spending the money from donors. Do you think all the data is really there? How can you know?
There is a lot of data out there, but I don’t think it is anywhere near what is yet to be published or released. It requires time, energy, political will, bureaucratic will, and the development of new and different internal processes and cultures to get us to a point where we will have comprehensive and timely data on aid programs. We are on a path to that but a [lot] more effort is needed.