An important use of the data is to expose the still appalling sparseness of the data, and the poor quality of much of what has been submitted. Saying this could be taken as a kick in the teeth of the hundreds of people who have worked hard on marshalling and improving the data, but it shouldn’t be. Technical facilitation can only do its honourable best in the absence of strong political will to produce good-quality data.
There are strong structural reasons why so many governments and aid agencies have not produced data in respectable quantity, quality and format. Aid projects are difficult; they produce actions and results which have many potentially controversial and embarrassing aspects. As an aidworker I often habitually glossed things over in my reports; this was the natural thing to do. However, the quality and contents of results-reporting is near the thick end of the wedge. The participation, if any, of most donors and other aid-agencies is still nearer the thin end, merely disclosing things like dates and financial numbers. One can understand why they are nervous about letting the wedge go in much further.
This is not a counsel of despair. Politically, a lot has been achieved in Accra, Busan and elsewhere, and more political will can be created. What I am arguing is to avoid needlessly de-politicizing the challenge.
One important form of de-politicization is serving the illusion that current and upcoming information systems are producing a consistent registry and map of what aid is doing. At best they are likely to hold a trove of nuggets, and afford a means of exposing transparency deficits. At worst, they make people think that transparency and efficient governance are (almost) in place: that the matter is being taken care of. I suspect that Mohinga (see Leigh_Mitchell’s post, above) is a case in point. Yes, the clarity and smooth functioning of the interface and dashboards are impressive. But that’s part of the problem. For all its ease, how many people go beyond that, and login, and get past the interesting charts (based on aggregations of incomplete and questionable numbers), and find the list of projects, and go down clicking the projects and then the ‘results’ tabs? If you do, you’ll not find many precise accounts of activities or results, even pertaining to projects well past their ‘end’ date. And I don’t thing that’s just because it’s work in progress. I think you’ve reached an invisible wall.
So what do we do as data-technicians? We take a realistic view of the limitations of the data for purposes of techno-governance. We caution against projects based on this premise. We don’t persist in acting as if the data is smooth, but improve our maps of where it is good, bad and non-existent. (The recently increased IATI focus on data-quality is a good move in this direction, but we need to go much further.) We should see ourselves more often as making maps of the data for guerrilla fighters (including many practising aidworkers and government workers as well as pro-democracy activists) rather than as using the inadequate data in a vain attempt to map something real for the state-planning bureaucrats.
I’ve started trying to help the guerrillas through AidOpener.org, and am grateful for the friendly and effective assistance given by the IATI Support team.