“There’s no suitable publishing tool”

(Amy Silcock) #1

Over the past few months I’ve been supporting and encouraging publishers to transition their data off CSV2IATI. In this process a number of organisations have told me that, for them, there is ‘no suitable publishing tool’. That they’re looking externally for a ‘saviour system’, a ‘magical solution’, through which they can publish to IATI.

Typically these organisations are medium to large sized IATI publishers, meaning they have around 50 – 10,000 activities. Too many to maintain within AidStream (at least not until there’s a comprehensive closed loop CSV download/upload system) and on the cusp (if not well past the point) of needing to build a bespoke system. So, what are they looking for?

In my opinion (dreaming for that magical solution), they are looking for a tool that:

  • Is designed for large quantities of data, >5000 activities
    • This means there needs to be a level of automation when it comes to publishing.
    • Entering 50+ activities by hand is too many, let alone 1000+
  • Works with CSV upload
    • If possible be able to link to internal project/finance management systems
    • Plus the ability to amend the CSV template to fit organisational structure
    • And have the option of downloading the data in CSV format
  • Has a public user website
  • Is open source
  • Is free to use
    • Or at least be low cost
    • With a sustainable funding model going forwards
  • Requires only a little knowledge of the IATI schema
    • And not much tech knowledge to set up and use
  • Is able to segment files
  • Can create both activity and organisational files
  • Supports the most current version of the IATI standard
    • And supports multiple versions going forward as the standard gets upgraded
  • Has an in-built validation function
  • Links to the IATI Registry for automatic publication
  • Has online guidance and 1:1 support

The tools on the market, AidStream, Akvo RSR, SQL to XML and CSV2IATI don’t meet all of these criteria. Neither do the upcoming tools of CoVE and IATI Studio Publisher. They all have their benefits and they all have room for improvement.

A few months ago, if you pulled off a list of medium – large organisations using CSV2IATI from the IATI Registry you would have found:

  1. Japan – Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)
  2. Finland – Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  3. UK – Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
  4. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  5. Practical Action
  6. OPEN Fund for International Development (OFID)
  7. Ireland – Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (Irish Aid)
  8. International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
  9. CDC Group plc
  10. Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)
  11. Sightsavers
  12. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) UK
  13. International Climate Initiative / BMUB Programmbuero IKI
  14. Saferworld
  15. United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF)
  16. World Vision International (WVI)
  17. Indigo Trust
  18. ActionAid International
  19. Norwegian Refugee Council
  20. Global Partnership for Education
  21. ICS – International Christian Aid Fund

These organisation, plus all the new and potential (medium to large) organisations, need a way of publishing. A number are involved with testing new tools, using an existing tool inappropriately or investing in an internal system. Right now there is a gap in the market. There is a need for better tools. There are organisations willing to invest and try out.

Can we work together to solve this? Pool resources and knowledge so that a sustainable tool can be developed that meets market need?

@JohnAdams@, @bjwebb, @harryharrold, @robredpath, @rory_scott, @stevieflow, @siemvaessen, @mato74, @bibhusan, @anjesh Jump into this conversation. Let’s hear where your product is at!

Data use observation: some organisations don't use their IATI data, but *do* use their data
(Reid Porter) #2

I think (with some additional heavy lifting, maybe more than a little heavy lifting) the Open Aid Publishers Toolchain (Cove + data improvement tools + D-Portal preview tools) would be the perfect solution here, and in fact was intended to support middling-to-large organizations with a single interface that integrated many modular validation and enhancement tools, but the timing isn’t ideal with CSV2IATI going dark soon, and the support infrastructure won’t be in place.

It was built to be capable of being integrated internally, meaning orgs could stand up and run the tool on their own if they had the chops, but a sustainable service offering is not realistic without 1) additional funding for either the Open Ag project or individual developers like ODS or Neon Tribe to continue support, 2) the establishment of a SaaS business model or ongoing support by the Secretariat, consortium of donors, etc. As someone pointed out in our miniTAG discussion last week, we’re essentially incubating this tool with funding from the Gates Foundation, but it will not yet be ready to hatch by the time our grant ends.

The techies you tagged could say more about the technical bits than I can. I guess my point is “yes, a solution is on the horizon, but there may well be a gap.”

Looking for Experts/Consultants IATI
(Steven Flower) #3

Please, no magic! The magic solutions never work. They build false expectations. And then, people change their mind and want them in blue.

But, mainly:

… so that a sustainable tool can be developed that meets market need?

To even begin to get to this, I think we need to answer: why is the current CSV2IATI tool not to be sustained?

I can offer three reasons:

1 - It hasn’t been maintained

The main reasons to switch off CSV2IATI, seems to be:

feedback from users tells us that CSV2IATI is struggling to cope with converting files from an increasing number of IATI publishers, with a rapidly expanding volume of data. Additionally, the tool was built in such a way that it is now difficult to update it in line with changes to the IATI Standard.

Some context on this might help us:

  • CSV2IATI was built five years ago by @markbrough , as a quick response to a user need to “convert data from spreadsheets”. This was - as in all best efforts - build on code already openly available
  • Looking at the code activity on the CSV2IATI repo, there was a spike of activity in the initial development, and then some patching up by @bjwebb (whilst at the Secretariat) in 2014.
  • CSV2IATI has had - according to these logs - no major development for three+ years. The latter commits from @hayfield & @rory_scott are about decommissioning it

So, whilst it’s fair to say that the tool presents difficulties, a reality is that it has not had any active development to address these.

(it should be noted that the minutes of the Oct 2014 Steering Committee state that it would be 2.01 compliant by December 2014).

2 - It’s been made available for free, with free support

In relation to:

Has online guidance and 1:1 support

CSV2IATI has been made available for free, with free support to publishers, by the secretariat / @IATI-techteam. To be clear: this has been great to help IATI adoption growth. But, in the context of sustainability it’s difficult for anyone else to step in and offer universal access and free support

A sustainable tool needs a team of people to support, maintain, document and enhance it. If not - and further compounded by the complexity of IATI-as-spreadsheet - then people can get things wrong, produce poor quality data, and then blame the tool.

It looks like these first two observations might be linked

3 - It might be the wrong answer to an irrelevant question

This is a bit more difficult. With our developments of the CoVE codebase, we’re actively developing how one format (csv/xslx) can be transformed to another (xml), and backwards (xml > xlsx) too. I’ve even given a brief talk at the Members’ Assembly about the value of spreadsheets to IATI publishers (yes, with cats)! So - don’t read the following as anti-spreadsheet!

However. the one-to-many dynamic of IATI means that maintaining lots of data in a single flat CSV sheet, for conversion into IATI XML, is really really hard for most humans I know. CSV2IATI presented one approach to that - but in turn added several complexities.

In reality - and I think people like @Herman & @theo.sande would agree - if you plan to publish data on hundreds / thousands of projects, then complete reliance on a “free online tool” that requires a csv file input isn’t going to be a sustainable publishing strategy.

To this end, I disagree with the specification posted by @amys, and don’t subscribe to the assessment of other solutions not meeting this. Sorry.

What next?

User story interlude: I recently worked with IFAD. They were in CSV2IATI world. This was painful. They now automatically publish IATI data out of their IT systems, and can now see how they can include a far wider range of data points. This isn’t painful. This would just not have been possible with CSV2IATI, or any other spreadsheet>XML setup.

Interestingly, however, we used CoVE to model some sample XML, in order to provide the development team with ideas around how things could look. The idea of quickly prototyping IATI, perhaps by someone non-technical, via spreadsheets, does seem to be something that can fit into the workflow of many organisations.

At Open Data Services Co-operative, we are working on CoVE, and using it with various organisations. We have both a command line and GUI version in operation. We’re finding (also via work with organisations publishing with the open contracting and 360Giving standards) that workbooks (spreadsheets with tabs!) are more intuitive to people than flat CSV files. BUT - we’re learning as we go along, and actively developing in tandem. For example, by enabling CoVE to work in the context of the Open Ag Toolchain @reidmporter mentions, we opened up a whole piece of development around ruleset testing, building on @andylolz’s fantastic work.

But, we haven’t a magic solution.
And we’re very sensitive about sustainability.

(Rolf Kleef) #4

We’re offering this as a (paid) service right now: since the start of this year, we’ve been working with Woord en Daad to develop a “Spreadsheet2IATI” service, and currently a handful of organisations are working with that. They publish more in the order of dozens to around 250 activities right now.

It’s a service, not a tool: we’re working with each organisation to develop suitable spreadsheet exports from their existing systems, and we continuously tune that with each publication.

Right now we’re mostly using (multiple) spreadsheets, but mixing other data formats is possible too. In fact, we’ve been mixing AidStream IATI data with spreadsheets with additional results or additional projects, to produce a richer IATI data set.

We see “producing IATI” a bit like doing your payrolls or tax declarations: it makes sense to focus on your own work, and outsource the nitty-gritty details, then get your data back ready to publish and use, including management summaries and recommendations.

I think I agree with Steven: there is no generic tool to do this (just as there is no generic project management system that you just download and run). Our focus is mostly on integration into internal reporting and quality management processes.

I’ve just written a description of what we do on my blog: https://www.drostan.org/2017/10/spreadsheets-to-iati-our-service/

(Herman van Loon) #5

@amys In addition to the comments of @stevieflow and @rolfkleef:

One of the challenges to reliably produce IATI data is to map your internal presentation of your own data in your systems to the external IATI representation. Since this mapping is organisation specific, a ‘one size fits all’ magic bullet approach will i.m.o. not work.

When you have a large project porfolio (1000 + activities) it is i.m.o. worthwhile to invest in bespoke software to automatically produce IATI data based on your own organisations specific mapping. Before you do that, it is important to have these mapping specifications very clear. In addition to that, it is also important to assess the data quality of your own systems: garbage in = garbage out.

(Anthony Gonzalez) #6

I think Steven is essentially correct, there are no “one size fits all” solutions and when picking a solution, you should look at whether you think this is going to still be available in the next few years.

IATI publishing can be quite complex and there are several different ways to deal with this. Nearly every solution would do well to link in to a results framework or logframe, a project database and IATI publishing options.

One such solution is Akvo RSR. It does all this, and a number of other very useful things. It isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, as was never intended to be, but at Akvo we found we need to publish IATI ourselves and we use it and many others find it useful too.

You can check it out here: https://akvo.org/products/rsr/#overview

(Amy Silcock) #7

Good to hear an update on where some of the tools and services are at. The knowledge that a ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work and that there’s an overarching ‘sensitivity’ about sustainability is nothing new. There are potential donors out there, a market for different tools, for consultants and working specifically with larger organisations to help them map their specifications. Perhaps it’s time to consider new collaborative funding models? And continue working together to make better use of everyone’s efforts and the current market.

So my question is, how are you as IATI tool and service builders going to move forward?

(SJohns) #8

Hi, I have to say that from a publisher perspective this discussion doesn’t get us any closer to tool solutions, which makes me feel incredibly frustrated. There is a reason why many organisations use Aidstream - its reliable, maintained, user responsive and does the job. Its now a mature product and its likely that people would pay to use it because it provides real value. I don’t understand why, if YIPL are able to do this, no-one else has bothered to back their product by raising investment to develop it properly? Half-done Github code is no use to us. If you honestly believe in the products you have developed (in the posts above) why don’t you get investment to develop them? And if you don’t believe in them, stop raising our expectations. Then we can all move on and get some proper solutions.

(Mark Brough) #9

Hmm… I kind of wonder if a more productive approach might be for potential IATI publishers (or a group of them) to approach one of the many vendors listed in this post and ask for a quote to build the required tools or processes to help them publish