Tag Archives: development

CIDA announces Open Data portal: What it means to Canadians

For those who missed it, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced it is launching an open data portal.

This is exciting news. On Monday I was interviewed about the initiative by Embassy Magazine which published the resulting article (behind their paywall) here.

As (I hope) the interview conveys, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Minister’s announcement. I’m conservative in my reaction only because we don’t actually know what the Minister has announced. At the moment the CIDA open data page is, quite literally, a blank slate. I feel positive because pretty much anything that gets more information about Canada’s aid budget available online is a step in the right direction. I’m cautious however, because the text from the Minister’s speech leads me to believe that she is using the term “open data” to describe something that may, in fact, not be open data.

Donors and partner countries must be accountable to their citizens, absolutely, but both must also be accountable to each other.

Transparency underpins these accountabilities.

With this in mind, today I am pleased to announce the Open Data Portal on the CIDA website that will make our searchable database of roughly 3,000 projects quick and simple to access.

The Open Data portal will put our country strategies, evaluations, audits and annual statistical and results reports within easy reach.

One of the core elements of the definition of “open data” is that it be machine readable. I need to actually get the “data” (e.g an excel spreadsheet, or database I can download and/or access) so that I can play with it, mash it up, analyze it, etc… It isn’t clear that this is on offer. The minister’s announcements talks about a database that allows you to search, and quickly download, reports on the 3000 projects that CIDA funds or operates. A report however, is not data. It may cite data, it may (and hopefully does) even contain data in charts or tables, but if what we are getting is access to reports then this is not an open data portal.

What I hope is happening – and what I advocated for in an oped in the Toronto Star – is that the Minister is launching a true open data portal which will share actual data – not analysis – with Canadians. More importantly, I hope this means Canada will be joining the efforts of Publish What you Fund, as it pushes donor organizations to share their aid data in a single common structure, so that budgets, contributions, projects, timelines, geography and other information about aid can be compared across countries, agencies, and organizations.

Open data, and especially in a internationally recognized standardized format, matters because no one is going to read all 10,000 reports about all 3000 projects CIDA funds. However, if we had access to the data, in a structured manner, there are those at non-profits, in universities and colleges and in the media (among other places) that could map the projects, compare budgets and results more clearly, compare our efforts against those of other countries, and do their own analysis to say, find duplication and overlap. I don’t, for a second, believe that 99.9% of Canadians will use CIDA’s open data portal, but the .1% who do will be able to create products that can inform the rest of us, and allow us to better understand Canada’s role in the world. In other words, Open Data portal could be empowering and educating to a broad number of people. Access to 10,000 reports, while a good step, simply won’t be able to create a similar outcome on any scale. The difference is, quite frankly, dramatic.

So let’s wait and see. I’m excited that the Minister of International Cooperation is using the language of Open Data – it means that she and her staff understand it has currency. What I also hope is that they understand its meaning – so far we have no data on whether they do or do not, and I remain cautiously optimistic, they should, after all, realize the significance of the language they are using. Either way, they have set high expectations among those of us who think about, talk about and work in, this area. As a Canadian, I’m hoping those expectations get fulfilled.

World Bank Discussion on Open Data – lessons for developers, governments and others

Yesterday the World Bank formally launched its Apps For Development competition and Google announced that in addition to integrating the World Bank’s (large and growing) data catalog into searches, it will now do it in 34 languages.

What is fascinating about this announcement and the recent changes at the bank is it appears to be very serious about open data and even more serious about open development. The repercussions of this shift, especially if the bank starts demanding that its national partners also disclose data, could be significant.

This of course, means there is lots to talk about. So, as part of the overall launch of the competition and in an effort to open up the workings of the World Bank, the organization hosted its first Open Forum in which a panel of guests talked about open development and open data. The bank was kind enough to invite me and so I ducted out of GTEC a pinch early and flew down to DC to meet some of the amazing people behind the world bank’s changes and discuss the future of open data and what it means for open development.

Embedded below is the video of the event.

As a little backgrounder here are some links to the bios of the different panelists and people who cycled through the event.

Our host: Molly Wood of CNET.

Andrew McLaughlin, Deputy Chief Technology Officer, The White House (formerly head of Global Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google) (twitter feed)

Stuart Gill, World Bank expert, Disaster Mitigation and Response for LAC

David Eaves, Open Government Writer and Activist

Rakesh Rajani, Founder, Twaweza, an initiative focused on transparency and accountability in East Africa (twitter)

Aleem Walji, Manager, Innovation Practice, World Bank Institute (twitter)

Good Statistical Data: We fund it in Africa, but not in Canada

It turns out that the Canadian government is a supporter of collecting good statistical data – especially data that can be used to alleviate poverty and address disease. There’s only one catch. It can’t help Canadians.

As the fall out from the canceling of the mandatory long form census continues to grow – today the head of Alberta Health Services spoke out, saying the the census decision will hamper the province’s ability to deliver health care efficiently – we  now learn that the very arguments the government dismisses here in Canada, it supports on the international stage.

As it happens, the Canadian International Development Agency contributes to the Trust Fund for Statistical Capacity Building (TFSCB) an international fund designed to support the Marrakech Action Plan for Statistics. And what, you should legitimately ask, is the Marrakech plan? It is a general agreement by international actors to support building developing countries statistical capacity. It has, specifically, as a primary objective, the goal of developing countries capacity to perform censuses. More interestingly, it has a secondary goal, to: “Set up an international Household Survey Network.” the very same part of the census the government just gutted here in Canada.

Both the Trust Fund and the Marrakech Action plan websites explain this in detail. But so to does the CIDA website, where the government acknowledges that this work is essential as:

“The projects supported aim to improve in the collection, processing, analysis, storage, dissemination, and use of quality statistics to support poverty reduction and economic and social development. Developing countries can submit funding proposals to the Trust Fund. The proposals are ideally based on a national strategy for the development of statistics. By implementing such a strategy, countries can improve their statistical capacities to measure development progress and results, notably with regard to the Millennium Development Goals, and to better plan and utilize scarce resources.”

In short, our government accepts that the Household Survey is essential to helping marginalized people. It recognizes that such a survey will help other governments tackle poverty, health care and other social development issues. Indeed, it believes it so strongly, we will spend millions of dollars a year funding the development of statistical capacity abroad to ensure that other governments don’t do what we just did to the long form census.

I’m grateful that our government believes that good statistics and the types of questions found on the long form are essential to developing good policy – I’m just sad they don’t believe it to be true for Canada citizens.

Competitive Bureaucracies: Why is IDRC a Success?

A long time ago a friend of mine was talking about how some organizations thrive by being under constant threat. His favourite example was the US Navy’s Marine Corp. The Marines are, operationally, the cheapest army corp in the United States forces, among the most mobile and, many would argue, possibly the most effective.Why, he asked, do you think the Marine Corp is considered so excellent? Why does it work so hard to excel in every way?

Well, he claimed, it was because the Marines are always an obvious target for budget cutters and larger rivals. If were looking cut duplicating services it would be easy to look over at the Marine Corp and ask… Why does the Navy need an army? Isn’t the army supposed to be our… army?

And trust me, this is a questions the Army asks regularly. Indeed, reading the Wikipedia page about the Marines – one can quickly see how the Marine Corps dissolution has been sought at various points in history:

The Marine Corps combat capabilities in some ways overlap those of the United States Army, the latter having historically viewed the Corps as encroaching on the Army’s capabilities and competing for funding, missions, and renown. The attitude dates back to the founding of the Continental Marines, when General George Washington refused to allow the initial Marine battalions to be drawn from among his Continental Army. Most significantly, in the aftermath of World War II, Army efforts to restructure the American defense establishment included the dissolution of the Corps and the folding of its capabilities into the other services.

So what does this have to do with International Development Research Centre?

I confess that I am not involved in development issues that much. But every time I do stray into the space and am impressed with a project that is innovative or interesting, it seems the IDRC has had a hand in funding it.

For example, readers of this blog know that I’ve become involved with OpenMRS, a community-developed, open-source, enterprise electronic medical record system platform specifically designed for doctors in the developing world. IDRC is a funder. Or, guess who is helping fund a community driven approach to bring connectivity and the internet to developing countries… IDRC is. There have been others over the years that I’ve seen, but can’t remember.

Some of this relates to part of the IDRC’s mission, which centres around the use of Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) but I also believe that part of it has to do with the fact that the bigger and more amply funded Canadian International Development Agency is just a kilometer away across the Ottawa river the IDRC must always be demonstrating that it is leaner, faster and more effective to justify its existence.

Just like the Marine corp must always justify its existence by being both excellent, effective and cheap. So to must the IDRC. It is the organization in government that – from what I can tell – is more likely to embrace technology, promote an innovative culture and, to be blunt, get the job done. Why? Because it has to.

This is not a defence of duplication of services (and, to be clear, I do not think that IDRC and CIDA’s services directly overlap – but they do operate in similar spaces). But it cannot be denied that competition helps. But I’m not sure it is enough, either. Sometimes, duplications of services simply leads to two poorly performing institutions. I would love to be able to explore what it is about the IDRC and Marine Corp that enable them to channel the threat to their existence into innovation. Is it history? Was it the personality of their founders? Corporate culture? I suspect it is more than the threat of the budgetary axe wielder. But what… I’m not sure.

Perhaps someone will make it a thesis topic some day. I’m going to give it more thought myself.