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Congressional hearing highlights reality of walking the walk on open data for development

December 4, 2014

It’s funny how unrelated events conspire to make you introspective. Today the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the Data Accountability and Transparency Act  (the DATA Act). That hearing followed quickly on the heels of MCC’s Monday announcement that we had formed a new partnership with PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to launch country-driven local data hubs. 

The proximity of the two events got me thinking along two lines.

Today, much of the commentary around the DATA Act reflects lessons and questions that MCC grapples with when pursuing an open data agenda. At the launch of any data commitment, spirits are high—it feels good to commit to being open!  I have been part of those announcements, and it’s as if you can already feel the sunshine through all that transparency. The hard work of delivering on those commitments is where the lessons come in.  It takes a plan, solid management and realistic application of human resources to move data into the public domain in a way that can be repeated. So as I hear the echoes of questions on how to measure or capture progress on implementing the DATA Act, it drives home the idea that for all the mythical characteristics we attribute to data, the process of making progress is just that—a process. 

But even more than the lessons we’ve already learned, this hearing got me thinking of some of the deeper questions that I feel like I still grapple with. If you believe in data as a public good, how do you ensure the public can actually use the data you publish?  We all know that "if you build it they will come" isn't an open data strategy—that’s not news. And we can understand intellectually that the solution is to work directly with the communities that you think will use the data to ensure it meets their actual wants and needs. But for foreign assistance organizations and agencies, navigating the competing priorities of communities that can and want to use our data is complicated. Getting our head around how to make data useful for the “last mile of analysis”—whether public sector decision making, public accountability or sector research purposes—is an area where we still have tremendous progress to make. 

But for all of this introspection, I also come away proud that MCC continues to push itself and its data forward. The agency started publishing the policy indicator data we use to make decisions about where MCC should invest in 2005 long before #opendata became a thing.  And since then we have taken steps to generate out and submit a full IATI file, roll out data from our impact evaluations and generally continue to push ourselves to the next level in the interest of transparency.

With new data hubs over the horizon, I look forward to the next set of lessons.