June ICYMI: Unlocking Data, Working in Closed Societies, and Smart Risks

If you're like us, the summer months have sped away quickly! The range of events and activities at Open Gov Hub have continued regardless, with events on foreign aid data, working with open data in closed societies, and a book launch by one of our members.

Tools to Use: Unlocking Foreign Aid Data

The Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) hosted a panel discussion with breakout sessions on transparency of US aid transparency, with remarks from Congressman Ted Poe, and representatives from the US State Department, MCC, USAID, and the government of Honduras.

Three Takeaways:

  1. Congressman Poe discussed the years of bipartisan effort that have gone in to promoting more transparent and effective US development assistance sent abroad, and emphasized that the more we are transparent and accountable in our aid, the more the American public will be able to see and appreciate the positive impacts of foreign aid.
  2. All panelists discussed the need to promote greater use of aid data, now that it has become more available and transparent. The USAID representative emphasized that data should be published in a more timely manner to help encourage use, while the State Department representative explained the significant efforts being made to make it easier and less tedious and manual for civil servants to input descriptive data about foreign aid projects (to give more programmatic context to spending data). As part of these efforts, State and USAID are both trying to retrofit financial systems to collect and manage descriptive data that they weren't designed for.
  3. One of the great challenges is the fundamentally fragmented way in which US foreign assistance is actually delivered, across 22 different federal agencies. There can be significant variations even in very basic information - for example, the Peace Corps, USAID and State Department all divide the world into regions in a different way. Yet there have been some successes, such as MCC/PEPFAR's data collaboration on the Data Zatu program in Tanzania, which importantly first starts with a listening campaign to map problems in communities, and then connects them to data that can help address them.

Open Government Partnership Happy Hour with Their Steering Committee

The Open Government Partnership hosted a happy hour for friends and colleagues of OGP to meet with some of the new OGP Steering Committee members, and for members of the community to reflect on the role of OGP in political transitions.

Three Takeaways:

  1. In light of worrying signs of closing governments (in developed and developing countries) over the last 1.5 years, now is the time for the OGP brand to illustrate to citizens around the world that openness can be a key antidote to legitimate citizen grievances about corruption and growing distrust in government, rather than the alternative response of more radical populism.
  2. Opengov reforms from the Philippines and the US shared how recent political transitions have in some cases significantly set back their efforts. However they also pointed to opportunities to engage civil servants and bureaucrats in opengov efforts to help embed reforms within government to be able to withstand changes in political administrations.
  3. Throughout 2018, numerous consequential elections will take place all over the world. These political transitions are key moments for the global open government movement to continue to assert itself and prove its relevance.

Open Data in Closed Societies 

The Small Media Foundation, a not-for-profit organization based in London, launched Iran Open Data in November 2016, with the aim to make Iranian government data accessible. They hosted a discussion about promoting openness in closed societies, which also featured a presentation from a partner open data activist in India.

Three Takeaways:

  1. The Iran Open Data Initiative is a unique effort that brings together researchers, developers, and advocates to convert existing information from the Iranian government (mostly buried in PDFs) into usable and machine readable formats, and to promote more sharing of data about public resources (using tools like Iran's Access to Information law).
  2. Some of the greatest challenges in this work include: a culture of secrecy, inconsistency across data sets (for example, there are 6 different spellings of a main river from 6 different ministries), and lack of clarity on who's exact responsibility it is to publish what type of data. The presenter also importantly noted that, "the very act of publishing data influences the quality of future data," as the more eyes that are on the data, the more likely it is to be high quality.
  3. The Hyderbad Urban Lab is a research organization in India that tries to help make the city work work better for all its residents. They ran an innovative "Don't Hold It In Campaign," which took an audit and mapped out all public toilets across the city (as having access to safe, clear toilet facilities is a challenge for many poorer residents, particularly women). By collecting existing government data and mapping the actual locations themselves (i.e. creating new data), they discovered a real problem: most public toilets were built near major highway roads/intersections, not in the older party of the city with the most foot traffic and poorer residents, where tens of thousands of people come to the market daily. This is because the private contractors hired by government to build toilets had a perverse incentive to place them near major roads so the advertising on the walls could be seen by many, rather than locating the toilets where there was the greatest density and need.

Smart Risks Book Launch and Celebration

The Open Gov Hub was pleased to host a book launch of Smart Risks, a new volume of 30 essays in which 22 authors explore how responsive grantmaking, focused on grassroots wisdom and close connections, can make a lasting impact in the Global South. Smart Risks was co-edited by Hub Member and Thousand Currents Communication Director Jennifer Lentfer.

Watch the event here.

Three Takeaways:

  1. While the focus of the discussion on was how to effectively promote relatively small amounts of funding to support grassroots actors int he Global South, this work can have a tremendous aggregate impact. The book came from the efforts of a collaborative of small grantmakers that is responsible for giving almost $130 million to over 5,000 grassroots organizations from over 130 countries through 12,000 grants over the past 30+ years.
  2. Smart Risks offers valuable guidance on choosing who, what and how to support local leaders in developing contexts, which can be used by staff at grantmaking institutions of all sizes but also by other development practitioners and by individuals to help inform and improve the impact of their personal charitable giving.
  3. Part of what it takes to take a "smart risk" is to recognize that authentically building community and making change to address societal problems takes time, which is why these types of grantmakers invest in relationships and organizations over the long-term, far beyond the typical 1-3 year project lifecycle. Another key is to unlearn the notion of outsiders coming in to "build local capacity" - and instead recognize that all the capacity for communities to solve their problems is already there, and instead just needs to be resourced and supported.