Hacking open data on development aid
“... In August, I went to the Development Data Hackathon at The Guardian - great people, great ideas... The hackathon at The Guardian was devised to see if we could use public information recently released as open data to create new knowledge/solutions for international development challenges. One enterprising team hacked together a map locating all of the known clean water sources in a particular province of South Sudan using data released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A second team mapped geo-tagged data on aid by sector in Malawi... Yet another team worked on trying to understand the relationship between media coverage of humanitarian emergencies and aid donations using information scraped from news sites such as BBC, CNN and Channel 4. Ingenious as these hacks are, they also reveal how we view aid from the perspective of development actors in London rather than from the perspective of people in rural Africa - we set ourselves managerialist problems. It is an understandable consequence of running a hackathon in London that technical fixes are developed without any real input into the setting of priorities or into the research and development process from the intended ‘beneficiaries’ of development. This is true to some extent even if the hackathon takes place in one of the 50+ technology and innovation hubs now active across the African continent. Barely a week seems to pass without a new mobile apps competition or hackathon taking place but perhaps there is a need to hack the format of these events? If development is conceived of as a geek event that takes place in the capital city how can it practically be informed by the perspectives and priorities of those marginalised communities that it is intended to benefit? Paulo Freire, who worked for many years on agricultural reform in Chile, said that it was important that the intended beneficiaries of development should be lead participants in the conception and production of innovations. He argues that the intended beneficiaries of development should at the same time be its authors and feel ownership of the process. This serves equally well as a definition of agile software development and of human development. I have been working in the field of ICT for development (ICT4D) since 1988 and technology has a positive role to play, but I still have to struggle against the urge to put the technology before the people processes. I know that hackathons can and do result in ideas that can make a positive contribution – such as the M-Farm online marketplace, for example - but there is room to improve the format so the voices, innovative ideas and development priorities of the intended beneficiaries of development, are better reflected and better served by such events. I don't have the answer, but I am confident that if we put the right heads together we could hack a solution. Incidentally, the team that I was in at the Open Data Hackathon was trying to map the flow of millions of dollars of public funds from the World Bank and other agencies. We wanted to trace the money allocated for rural development along its route, via various international funds, development agencies, government departments and implementing organisations to discover exactly what percentage of the initial amount is actually spent in rural communities in Africa. And - you will never guess what - no data has been released in a format that would make such transparency possible. Where the data represents the accounting of public funds derived from tax revenues, as is the case with the World Bank, United Nations and the UK government's Department for International Development funds, or where the funds are derived from public appeals, there is really no defence for not publishing how our money is spent in a format that makes this analysis possible. Only when agencies release data in a format that makes it possible to produce this level of accountability will it be fair to say there is a genuine commitment to openness and transparency in aid spending."