This was originally posted on the Open for Change blog
Today I attended the launch of the new aid transparency effort, openaid.se, which is a joint effort between the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), to show where Swedish government development aid money is going. The Swedish minister for Development Cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, presented the effort and went into some depth to describe the work.
I together with Akvo was asked by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to review and give feedback on the openaid.se site before the launch. I was also part of a review panel which discussed the work after the presentation together with a very engaged audience.
I think openaid.se is a very good effort to start showing the Swedish aid budget. The team working on this clearly were very passionate about this work and has put in a lot of effort bringing both budgets and thousands of documents visible online. We would like to commend everyone involved on a great start.
To see the video of the launch event, click the above picture. The panel, which I was part of starts at 34 minuts in.
What was particularly interesting was how “agile” the team is, in other words, they dared to launch a site which is neither finished nor without some problems. If you spend some time on the openaid.se site you will find that there are holes in the information, which the minister explained was part of the process. There are thousands and thousands of hardcopy documents which would need to be scanned in to provide a complete archive, but they are providing everything for the last couple of years now and are looking for input on what is key to put online later, if at all. We think this is great that they make this a more participatory process, rather than plugging away at it until it is “finished” before launching it. Meaningful online systems are never finished. This is a system which I believe will continue develop until the Swedish aid budget is zero.
Areas of improvement
There were several areas which the minister acknowledged would need improvements as soon as possible. Among them were:
English language for navigation and translation of core content. This is something they are working on, but they chose to do Swedish first.
IATI compliance. This was mentioned several times, but no specific timeframe was mentioned. However, having looked at the content available, the current openaid.se API and being familiar with the IATI XML standard, my colleagues and I think it will reasonably easy to create IATI compliant output from openaid.se.
Open Source – I did ask the minister if they were going to release the system which they have built open-source, as I see quite a lot of value in giving other countries the ability to build on this. She said: “Why not?” According to this tweet by @jocke (who was on the review panel with me) the backend to openaid.se is Ruby on Rails and Raphaeljs for visualizations, which is promising.
Licensing of the data – The Swedish laws are a challenge compared to the generally adopted licensing around content and databases in other countries. Generally the Swedish laws are more open, but I think this could create some issues. I am no expert, but here are some examples of what I mean. It has been said by someone who knows this slightly better than me that this type of government content in Sweden is not covered by copyright, which means you can not assign a Creative Commons Zero license to it, as you then say you hold the copyright. Public Domain is also not applicable in Sweden the way it is in the US. But at the same time the content is “free to be reused”. The government and intellectual property lawyers in Sweden, and probably other countries in Europe, must review how this applies to government data and make sure legislation meant for a different century doesn’t put gravel in the machinery when we start mashing up this data internationally.
A funder centric view – The information presented in openaid.se is very funder centric, with a strong focus on money and formal reports. This is understandable, but we think that from a tax payers or users point of view, this can only be the beginning. It is very hard to understand from this type of system whether the development aid is effective and what impact it has.
However, we think that when you complement and integrate/mashup openaid.se, and systems like it, with an ecosystem of tools, such as:
- publicly accessible mobile phone training/survey and feedback tools like what Text to Change and Ushahidi are providing
- field monitoring and evaluation tools, like Water for People’s FLOW
- storytelling, project visualization and distributed publishing tools like Akvo RSR
then you really can get a grip on how aid is being spent and whether it is being effective or not.
It was clear that both the minister and the people from the ministry were very excited and committed to this work. I think this was a great step forward. It will support better democracy, both in Sweden and in the countries being supported, and it will result in better development aid.
I talked to several of the people working on openaid.se about the possibility to get them to come to the Open Data for Development Camp in May in Amsterdam. I think it would be a good time to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson is a co-director at Akvo.org