The North-South Institute



New Tools to Open Government

February 17, 2012


The Mark | 17th February 2012

How an interactive digital platform can help Canadians understand and shape our engagement with the developing world.

Canada’s engagement across the developing world is complex and multifaceted. As a key foreign-aid donor and OECD-DAC member, Canada’s trends, motivations, and interests in providing aid are of course vital in understanding this engagement. But we at the Canadian International Development Platform are convinced development is about much more than aid. Increasingly, other flows such as bilateral trade, investment, and immigration are becoming critical in understanding how Canada engages with developing countries.

This is the reason we developed, and recently launched, the Canadian International Development Platform (CIDP). The CIDP is a one-of-a-kind data-and-analysis-driven interactive platform that shows Canada’s engagement with the developing world. The CIDP offers the most comprehensive mapping of flows between Canada and developing countries, including detailed data and analyses on foreign aid, trade, investment, migration, and several other topics. The CIDP is an initiative of the North-South Institute (NSI) – which was recently ranked the best small think tank in the world – and builds on the institute’s 15-year track record of publishing the Canadian Development Report.

Related: CIDA: The Shape of Things to Come

Our aim with the CIDP is to engage Canadians on international development, elevate the level of debate by grounding it in the best available evidence base, and ultimately raise the profile of international-development issues in Canadian foreign policy. We do this by employing a combination of the latest in Web 2.0 tools and highly interactive data visualizations. The platform provides a virtual home for academics, policymakers, NGO and civil-society members, the media, and representatives from the corporate sector to come together to discuss development trends and issues, backed by the best available information base.

Why build such a platform? In part, the idea for the CIDP came as a response to what we see as an emerging and possibly game-changing trend, not just in the field of international development, but also in public policy in general. This trend can be called “open government,” or, more appropriately, “open policy development.” The open government trend around the world speaks to a realization that the traditional closed box of public-policy making needs to be opened up, and that, armed with the right set of tools, a broader range of stakeholders and citizens can play an active and useful role in the development of better government policies. It is about making public policy more dynamic and responsive.

Open government has at least three key components: open data (providing official data in appropriate formats so even those outside official circles can leverage and add value to it), open information (making proactive disclosures and simplifying access to information channels), and open dialogue (giving citizens a stronger say, especially via Web 2.0 technologies).

The Government of Canada has made important progress on open government, beginning with the launch, in March 2011, of the Treasury Board’s open government portal. In June 2011, at our annual conference, the Minister of International Co-operation launched the Canadian International Development Agency’s own open data portal. In September 2011, at the invitation of the United States, Canada signed on to the Open Government Partnership. Together, these efforts promise to go a long way in making our government more accountable and transparent.

We welcome each of these efforts, but with a healthy dose of caution. With the proliferation of open data initiatives, a huge amount of useful information is being made available at a scale unlike ever before. However, making sense of this data is not always easy. There is a lot of “noise,” and it can be hard to see what is useful, for what purpose(s), and how to adapt it to suit particular needs.

This is where the CIDP comes in. We synthesize data for analytical value so that it can be leveraged to enhance our understanding of how Canada engages on international development. We do this through highly interactive analytical dashboards. Our dashboards are useful both at the exploratory stage (to rapidly analyze a vast amount of information and isolate what is of most use), and at the output stage (to visualize results in an accessible and engaging way for a wide audience). We do this by asking big datasets leading questions generated by NSI’s large network of researchers, fellows, and associates.

Related: Stretching Foreign Aid Dollars

What if, for instance, we were interested in knowing not only how many aid dollars are spent in a particular country, but also what type of institutions – Canadian or foreign NGOs, civil-society groups, multilateral agencies, etc. – they are channeled through? Or what if we wanted to compare, side by side, not only how much aid went to the CIDA countries of focus over time, but also how much trade takes place with those countries, and what products are being traded? While the data needed to answer such questions may be available publicly, it is not readily useable: It is not available in any one place, and may be in formats that don’t necessarily work well together. We get around this by aggregating information from different sources, adding fields that help leverage its analytical value, bringing it all together in a common format, and making it available through data-rich interactive visualizations.

Finally, our platform also gives users the freedom to manipulate views, customize them for their own use, post back to us for more analysis, or share them across their networks. Each analysis provides space for the viewer to suggest further questions. In this way, we hope to stimulate a process of collaborative inquiry, which we believe is the missing piece in turning open data into better policy.