Poverty Reduction Blog Tag: Open Data
Posted on October 14, 2014 by Catherine Marschner, MCC Data Program Manager
What is data?
Data is raw information. When you collect all kinds of data on all kinds of different things, you can put it together to provide reliable information. This structured data can help partner country governments plan the best use of their resources, and it can help the people hold their governments accountable.
Collecting data in a standardized way makes the data even more reliable. In the case of foreign assistance, it leads to transparency, which is a priority for MCC.
So what have we done about it?
Our data team at MCC has worked hard over the last year to improve the quality of the data we share with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), an international registry that tracks the level of transparency in stakeholder-produced data on foreign aid. We have also made our efforts to produce data more efficient and sustainable. So while we are certainly proud to have been ranked among the top three donors in the 2014 Aid Transparency Index, we are even more proud—and committed to—the substantive improvements we have made and continue to make.
The quality of our data is better because we have added new data and functionality to our programmatic management information system and we’ve added detail for a number of IATI data fields: In our XML file users will find useful information now on
- planned disbursements by year for our compact programs,
- descriptions of our programs and their associated activities,
- and on the results of our work.
In fact, MCC’s data on performance was higher than any other donor ranked in the ATI – in part because we provide results descriptions, performance indicators and links to materials from our independent evaluations.
MCC has also built a more streamlined process for producing our data. We have an integrated team with expertise on the policy, data analysis, finance and technical sides. We also have an ability to pull data from different systems in order to build out an integrated data set in XML that meets the reporting requirements of both the Foreign Assistance Dashboard and IATI.
As we continue to build out our internal data systems, we are paying careful attention to how we link different pieces together. For example, our IATI file this year includes links back to our Evaluation Catalog, where MCC makes all the metadata and microdata from our independent evaluations freely available to the public.
All these strides forward have netted a dataset with a lot of richness – and some very interesting and high quality data! Yet at MCC, we also realized that it was not enough to just put this out there in XML: a format that is far from “human-readable.” Our team knew that for our efforts to become sustainable, we also needed to create an internal demand for this kind of data from our own staff. So we built a tool that visualizes the data so that MCC staff can use it to help them in their everyday work. The response has been enthusiastic so far, and we look forward to building additional analytical components, learning about staff demand, and reporting back on what we are learning!
We would love for all of these efforts to become more demand driven – so we welcome your thoughts and feedback on what we ought to prioritize as we strive to continually improve the quality and quantity of information MCC makes available to the public.
Posted on September 16, 2014 by Jennifer Sturdy and Jack Molyneaux, Department of Policy and Evaluation, and Kathy Farley and Kristin Penn, Department of Compact Operations
MCC has just announced its first Open Data Challenge - the call-to-action to any masters and PhD students working in economics, public policy, international development, or other related fields who are interested in exploring how to use publicly available MCC-financed primary data for policy-relevant analysis.
The release of this data is intended to facilitate broader use of the data, above and beyond the scope of the independent evaluations that produced this data. Since the challenge was announced at the end of August, one question to MCC has been – what type of additional learning is the agency interested in?
During the release of MCC’s first five impact evaluations in farmer training, there was a lot of learning and soul searching going on within the agency. Sure, some of the evaluations pointed to positive, expected results, like increases in farm incomes in the El Salvador dairy, Ghana northern farmers’, and Nicaragua farmer training programs, but there were a lot of unexpected results as well. Why didn’t we see increases in farm income in Armenia? What were unique characteristics of farmers selected for training in Honduras? What led to the differential impacts in Ghana? And, the big question, why weren’t the increases in farm income leading to observable increases in household income?
With this in mind, the MCC agriculture team took some time to ask themselves what additional learning they would have liked to see beyond what was analyzed in the independent evaluations. There were three broad categories of additional potential learning:
Understand better what led to observable, realistic impacts. For example, in Ghana the team was left asking:
- Why were impacts positive in the North, while negative overall – was this related to the differing agro-climatic context? Did impacts differ by crop type? Was this a measurement or a timing of measurement problem?
Understand better what led to observable, counter-intuitive impacts. In some of the evaluations, the evaluators found counter-intuitive impacts. For example, in Ghana:
- In the North, crop incomes were up by 78 percent, land under cultivation was up by 32percent, yet there was no significant increase in yields. How is that possible? Did treatment farmers plant a different mix of (higher value) crops than control?
Understand better the impacts on project implementation, secondary outcomes, and positive/negative externalities. In many cases, analysis was limited to the primary evaluation questions and outcomes agreed to for the purpose of the evaluation. However, the initial analysis produced from the evaluations resulted in many questions that could possibly be answered by further analysis of the same data. For example, in Honduras:
- The evaluator makes a strong case that the farmers selected for the program were fundamentally different from the ‘average’ farmer that would have been selected following a random selection process. Additional analysis on who these treatment farmers were and how they differ from the average farmer, and certainly farmers living in the comparison areas where farmer training was not made available, would be useful for understanding and interpreting results of the evaluation.
In all of these evaluations, MCC also recognized the need to explore:
- Gender disaggregated impacts. Many of these evaluations were designed prior to MCC’s policy to require gender and other relevant disaggregation data and impacts. Can the available data be used to produce gender disaggregated impacts in Armenia, El Salvador, Ghana, or Nicaragua?
- Assets and Investments. While overall household incomes did not increase, is the available data able to demonstrate whether or not households increased investments in assets or other investments during the evaluation period?
While the learning from these evaluations cannot be undervalued, MCC is eager to fully explore the potential for more learning from the existing data produced by these evaluations to answer outstanding questions on how to design more effective agricultural investments and improve evaluation of these investments. We hope the Open Data Challenge is one way to motivate external researchers to use available resources to start answering these questions.
Posted on October 25, 2013 by Sheila Herrling, Vice President for Policy and Evaluation
Yesterday I was part of a panel discussion to launch the 2013 Aid Transparency Index. The Index, published each year by Publish What You Fund, is the only independent assessment that rates aid organizations on how transparently they do business. And this year, the rankings show great progress across the U.S. Government in terms of aid transparency, with five of the six U.S. organizations evaluated improving their rankings.
The quantity and the quality of information being made available by U.S. foreign aid agencies increase every single quarter of reporting. This year’s Index shows the United States making considerable progress in balancing the need for coherence across government agencies, as well as progress with the timeliness and accuracy of data.
This year, MCC is being recognized as the top-ranked organization among the 67 assessed. We are all very honored by the ranking and continue in our commitment to making transparency a core business practice. And, truth be told, we are also humbled as we see agencies and organizations that have and will continue to inspire in this space now lower in the rankings despite their truly transformational efforts.
There is so much to learn from one another as we all seek to advance transparency and open data in order to find greater efficiencies in our business models, enhance citizen accountability over aid investments and maximize development impact. Just a few examples are here and here.
I thought it might be useful to share some of my reflections on the journey that got us to the top this year:
- Commit unequivocally and be persistent. Forging internal consensus is a critical first step. On the path to securing that consensus, be prepared to work through a “psychology of fear” that is perfectly understandable but must be overcome. It means believing firmly that the risks of more information in the public domain are worth taking in the pursuit of greater business efficiency and greater impact on the ground. And it means taking a leap of faith that your stakeholders will appreciate the risk and join you in a spirit of partnership.
- If you thought step one was hard, wait ’til you see what comes next. It is extremely important to make a strong business case for opening data to clearly show how the investment is going to bring a return to your organization, as well as to have the patience required to reach proof of concept on that business case. Tremendous hard work is required to deliver quality data. Be prepared to invest a lot of time and energy—largely manually—to organize disparate data and get it to a place where you can have a single authoritative source with multiple end-uses. The process requires a heavy lift on the front end—but as the data production becomes increasingly automated over time, costs will decrease dramatically while the benefits steadily rise.
- Put together a crack team that partners policy and technology. Part of doing it well requires a task-oriented team with a mix of policy-minded and technology-minded people. The technology-minded types need to learn not to roll their eyes at perceived bureaucratic hurdles and process/structure issues thrown up by the policy types, and the policy types need to acknowledge that there is room to loosen some controls and crowd-source the effort.
- Stay ambitious. Complacency in this space should not be tolerated. Continue to examine the demand side of the equation to make sure you are producing the right data in the right format for your various stakeholders. Continue to stay in touch with other organizations that are also driving forward in the field to learn and share and leapfrog each other’s efforts.
And to give folks a preview of what’s on the horizon at MCC as we seek to maintain that top spot:
- Revamp of data.mcc.gov: A revamp of our open data hosted at data.mcc.gov will include building a high-quality API file to allow a whole new world of stakeholders to access our data. We will continue to publish data in a range of formats, and the new interface of data.mcc.gov aims to make our data more easily discoverable and accessible.
- Release of 10-20 evaluation survey data sets: By June 2014, MCC has committed to publishing 10-20 of the survey data sets that have been collected as a result of our independent evaluations. We are in the process of preparing the data for release and presenting it for clearance to our internal Disclosure Review Board, which has been formed to ensure that MCC upholds high legal and ethical standards throughout the release process. In the future, we expect a steady stream of data sets to be made available because we are also reengineering our evaluation process with the end goal of data release in mind. This should speed up the process considerably.
- A new disclosure policy: We are putting the finishing touches on our new disclosure policy, which will guide staff in implementing transparent practices around the release of information collected in the course of MCC business. The policy aims to empower staff to release more information, consistent with the presumption of disclosure.
- Elevate our Open Government Plan: While the disclosure policy will serve as internal guidance to our staff, MCC is also planning to revise our Open Government Plan by June of next year. This plan will serve as the public-facing MCC document on access to information. In the process of revising this plan, MCC will seek active participation of stakeholders throughout the policy making process.
- Enhance and evolve the Dashboard: MCC continues to work with the Foreign Assistance Dashboard to continue to improve our own data on the Dashboard and to begin submitting data in XML format. We will make our XML code open code so any agency that wants to publish to XML can use what we’ve already produced.
- Pilot IATI XML generators in some MCAs: MCC will begin to explore how we can support our Millennium Challenge Accounts—the implementing organizations in partner countries—in reporting to IATI. As we build out new business systems for MCAs to use for financial, procurement and reporting functions, we will explore how to build IATI file generators into these systems to facilitate the process of including this information in the IATI Registry.
Trust that MCC will always seek to push the boundaries on transparency and open data because we believe so firmly that it leads to better programs, better understanding of what we do and better results. We take our No. 1 spot in the Aid Transparency Index with great pride, humility and a sense of sincere responsibility to keep evolving our efforts in this space for ourselves and others.
Posted on October 10, 2013 by Vidya Spandana, White House Presidential Innovation Fellow
What do Africa, open data and the private sector have in common? MCC continues to champion the intersection among the three, and this month we’re excited to engage businesses in an interactive dialogue on their needs in Africa and how our data can help meet them.
Open data is information available for the public to use for any purpose, without licensing or copyright restrictions and at no cost. President Barack Obama made open data a priority in an executive order earlier this year, and MCC already leads the way in fulfilling the President’s vision for open and transparent data.
One way MCC is unlocking the potential of its data is by making it publicly available to private companies interested in doing business in Africa. Supporting private sector investment as the engine of growth is, after all, a fundamental part of MCC’s model. With the development and use of open data, we can further encourage companies to invest in our partner countries by using the publicly available data to identify business opportunities for growth and profit-making, mitigate risks or better understand market and consumer dynamics. Open data is the practical way to make business processes efficient and effective, which gives companies an incentive—and a greater degree of confidence—to invest in MCC’s partner countries.
However, availability and access to open data from developing countries—like those in Africa—is still limited. This makes it frustrating for MCC, African partner countries and businesses to realize the benefits of open data, which can drive the decisions that put communities and companies on the win-win path to growth.
In response, MCC will partner with the Initiative for Global Development (IGD), a nonprofit that understands how accelerating business growth and investment in the developing world is a key solution for reducing poverty. MCC and IGD will survey business leaders investing in Africa to figure out how they could best benefit from access to open data.
In addition to the open data survey, IGD and MCC will lead a Twitter campaign to help spread the word about open data, its benefits and uses. MCC encourages the public and private sector to participate in this initiative and learn more about how open data can benefit both business development as well as economic development in Africa.
Join MCC and IGD in the conversation on open data by following @MCCtweets and @IGDleaders on Twitter. Share your comments and questions about open data, using hashtags #Data4Africa and #OpenData.
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