The Future is Now: An Introduction To IATI
It is amazing the amount of information that is now available at the click of a mouse button.
Recently I was interested in development programmes in Zimbabwe. All I had to do was visit http://www.openaidsearch.org/ or http://www.d-portal.org/ and select the country. Voila! I could see how much money was spent by which donor and for which sectors.
Additionally, as a Dutch taxpayer I have a personal interest to know where and on what the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs pours most of its development aid. To view this information I visit https://www.openaid.nl/ There on my screen were the ‘donor darlings’ of the Dutch government.
This information is also of professional interest to me. Based on where the Dutch aid flows and for which sector, it helps me with the designing of programmes and selection of target countries when drafting proposals for partnership with this donor.
Top 5 Recipient Countries of Dutch Funding To Date
In my case I was interested in the Dutch government's spending, but other country portals can be found at the links below.
DFID development tracker – A visualisation of the IATI set for the UK,
UNDP Open Aid Data Portal - UNDP IATI data.
Open UN-Habitat, visualising IATI data from UN-Habitat
The above information are all made possible by extracting raw data that is published by organisations from the IATI Registry.
What is IATI?
IATI stands for the International Aid Transparency Initiative and is a political agreement by the world’s major donors – including international banks, private foundations and NGOs – on a common way to publish aid information. The Initiative was launched on 4 September 2008, at a High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Accra, Ghana.
Most organisations and donor institutions have always been publishing their aid information, albeit in different formats. Some posted information on their websites, in their annual reports, published audited statements etc. As such the information was usually always out there in the public domain in some shape or form.
The challenge was how to compare all the data if they are all published in different formats. In layman terms, it is getting the data from the respective organisations to speak the same or a common language.
The ‘IATI Age’ where all data speak a common language
At the centre of IATI is the IATI Standard. This is a format and framework for publishing data on development cooperation activities. Organisations implement IATI by publishing their aid information in IATI’s agreed electronic format (XML) – this is the common language – before linking it to the IATI Registry. The Registry acts as an online catalogue and index of links to all of the raw data published to the IATI Standard.
The reason why all data published and linked to the IATI Registry is XML (versus Excel) is because XML enables swift, machine-readable data to be easily exchanged, compared and aggregated with other data published in the XML format.
This is what raw XML data looks like:
The number of publishers on IATI has grown from 17 in 2011 to 472 as of the writing of this blog post. The increase in the number of publishers has a lot to do with the thrust towards Open Data and transparency in development cooperation. Many International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) are now required to publish on IATI as a conditionality of receiving the funds from a particular donor.
As of 1 January 2016 it is mandatory that all organisations receiving over 250.000 euros from the Dutch coffers have to publish and link their data on the IATI Registry. The Dutch Ministry also produced a Guideline to aid its grantees on operational issues. For example, what to use as IATI Identifier. For Dutch organisations the organisation identifier is “NL-KVK” followed by the Chamber of Commerce number of the organisation. It is expected that other bilateral donors will follow suit to also demand recipients of their aid publish on IATI.
This news has sent the development cooperation sector in the Netherlands in a bit of a flurry (though I may be overstating it a bit). While no one disputes the value of transparency, publishing data on IATI can be a technical exercise.
Organisations first have to convert their dataset (for example an Excel file) into the XML format. Once this is done, organisations may choose to have this data presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner on their website.
In other words, publishing according to the IATI Standard means going from your simple Excel sheet
To ‘IATI Language’ of XML
To then eventually visualising the IATI data on your website. The example below is taken from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland)
Fortunately there are several different mechanisms to convert your data into IATI- XML data files.
A third option is the SQL-to-IATI tool that generates IATI XML data from activity data stored in a SQL database. DFID use this to publish their full set of 13,000 activities each month, so it supports enterprise-grade IATI. On the IATI website it states that DFID is willing to share the codebase with organisations as they seek to publish more data to the IATI standard. Additionally, DFID would like to partner with others interested in developing this further as an open source tool for the IATI community.
A final option is to do it yourself.
Organisations with the technical know-how of XML may decide to generate their own mechanisms for converting their data into IATI data. This can be done by developing internal systems and processes so that data is pulled together from internal management and finance systems to create XML data.
This is normally an option often chosen by organisations reporting a large number of activities as this may be to be the most cost effective means of reporting to IATI in the long term.
Once you are done converting your data, you may wish to have it visually presented on your website. The IATI Studio is currently developing a way for organisations to make their own visualisation based on their IATI data. There are also several commercial data visualization enterprises out there that can provide this service.
The Next Steps
I recently attended an IATI Learning Workshop in The Hague. Most of the participants were from organisations that are grantees in a Strategic Partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the same ones that are mandated to publish on IATI). The event was to share experiences and lessons learnt since they started to publish on IATI earlier this year.
Engrossed at IATI Learning Workshop
Some of the issues discussed were operational and practical in nature. For example, the importance of having buy-in from management throughout the process of publishing on IATI and for the formulation of an Open Data Policy beforehand. This policy will dictate which type of data is too sensitive to publish on IATI.
Other issues discussed at the learning event touched on the next steps with regards to IATI. For example, the issue of traceability and going beyond a view of financial flows to see actual impact and effectiveness of the programmes.
Visualisation of how much aid is spent, where and for what is good, but it stops short of telling us whether these funds achieved what they were meant to achieve.
Currently, some of the Dutch organisations publishing on IATI express difficulties in seeing which indicator goes with which outcome or output in IATI. This makes it difficult to know if they achieved the goals as set out in their Theories of Change and Results Framework. For a more detailed discussion of traceability you can view this blog as well as another article by Rolf Kleef.
Anyhow, for an organisation about to take the step (or is in the process) to publish on IATI, there is a forum on the IATI website that may be helpful. Additionally there is a Helpdesk by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to give support on IATI related questions. The latter may be very specific to the Dutch context, but helpful nevertheless.
I am interested in hearing about your experiences with IATI, so feel free to share in the 'Comments' section below.
Cover Photo credit: Rick van Luling