The North-South Institute



Hackers Tackle Foreign Aid Data in Canada’s First International Development Hackathon

August 25, 2013


Published by Postmedia News and Montreal Gazette

After 48 hours of writing code and crunching numbers, participants in Canada’s first international development hackathon have developed online tools to make the country’s foreign aid spending more accountable and efficient.

Hackathon organizer Ian Froude said the Canadian government and non-governmental organizations publish a wealth of data about the money they send to aid projects, but that this is rarely user-friendly. When spending amounts are presented in a fragmented way on different websites, it’s not always easy to see if money makes it to its destination or to make sure organizations aren’t duplicating each other’s efforts.

“There’s quite a bit of information out there, but it’s in many different formats so you can’t compare very well or it’s not in a correct format to do it very quickly,” Froude said.

To address this concern, a handful of computer programmers and data analysts who attended the hackathon in Ottawa this weekend created a “powerful open data hub” that brings together numbers from multiple funding organizations including the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Canadian International Development Agency, which was recently amalgamated into the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

“You don’t have to manually go to different sources and you can get the most up-to-date information in one place from all sources for the development issue that you’re interested in,” explained Aniket Bhushan, a researcher with the North-South Institute, a Canada-based international development think-tank.

Bhushan said the tool will prove useful to researchers and government agencies who want to get a complete picture of where and how Canada spends its aid dollars.

Another product coming out of the hackathon is a geocoding tool that analyzes aid project descriptions to pinpoint the precise geographic position of where money has gone.

“You can pull the information out, put it on a map, and see if there are concentrated areas of investment, you can see if there are areas with no investment and then you can make better decisions,” Froude said. So, for example, instead of simply knowing that aid money is going to Ghana, analysts can see where exactly in Ghana funding is going and if there are regions of the west African country that have been overlooked.

All data crunched over the weekend were available online, but Froude said some was easier to work with than others.

For example, organizations that have signed onto the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) publish raw data in a standardized format, which makes it easy for analysts to work with and compare numbers across organizations and countries.

The Canadian International Development Agency started publishing aid data in IATI format in 2012 and government has said the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development will continue to publish quarterly spending in this format.

“There’s value in that because if everyone uses the same format, it’s way easier to compare,” Froude said.

He said the next step is for Canada to mandate all non-governmental organizations receiving federal funding to also report their spending in this transparent and comparable format, as is the case in the United Kingdom. Once this happens, Froude said interested parties can easily follow the flow of taxpayers’ money through non-governmental organizations.

“It provides greater accountability to making sure those funds are reaching where they need to be,” he said.

Though some of Canada’s non-governmental organizations voluntarily report spending in IATI format, many haven’t reached this point yet and some publish spending reports in less useful formats including in PDF documents that “are not accessible, not machine-readable” and impossible to work with quickly.

Froude admits the country’s non-governmental organizations won’t make the switch to IATI reporting overnight. After all, publishing in that format can be tricky and expensive, especially for small organizations that might lack the technical expertise.

“It could be an administrative burden, it could be extra work that NGOs don’t have time to invest in,” Froude said.

The online tools developed during the hackathon are available online through an open-data portal hosted by the North-South Institute. Once projects have been tweaked and perfected, the institute will launch a series of outreach activities to make government agencies, universities and non-governmental organizations aware of the new tools.