It’s been a while since I was in New York for the TABridge Workshop organised by the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, but I’ve finally got around to blogging about it. The event brought together donors and practitioners from Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the US with an interest in transparency, budget data and natural resources. The event itself saw dozens and dozens of break-out sessions focusing on everything from how to make the most of social media and when to use mobile to practical demos of tools like OpenSpending and a how-to on creating your own social media dashboard (see my previous post on the creation of our own public social media dashboard). Here, though, I want to reflect on a couple of the sessions that I attended over the course of the conference. The first – on getting governments to open up data – is a topic with which data geeks and transparency campaigners are all too familiar, while the second is on a particular favourite of mine – the donor-grantee relationship. In line with Chatham House Rules, I won’t be naming names here, but you’ll hopefully find it useful nonetheless.
In 2013 – as in 2012 – there’s going to be a lot of talk about ‘big data‘. It’s hardly surprising given that the world now produces 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day, meaning that 90% of the data we now have has been produced in the last two years. That covers everything from website analytics to Facebook posts and supermarket sales to infection rates. Despite this wealth of data, getting government to open up their data – paid for by taxpayers on behalf of citizens – can be an uphill struggle. One of the most interesting sessions at TABridge examined this very problem and produced some very practical conclusions. All too often, data activists (or liberators) see themselves and government as warring factions in an ongoing struggle. As such, it’s all too easy to label government ministries and civil servants as enemies with something to hide. Sometimes that’s true, but quite often there are much more mundane problems at the heart of things. Much government data is produced, stored and captured on proprietary software that doesn’t lend itself well to sharing and collaboration (and that’s assuming that the data is digitised in the first place). Most systems date from the period between 1994 and 2001 and are ill equipped to deal with today’s challenges. Frequently, those in charge of managing the data are under-resourced and over-worked. Instead of taking an adversarial approach, many at the conference agreed that a more friendly, collaborative effort works better. They advised activists to find out what kind of systems governments used, who’s in charge of managing the data and to discover practical technological alternatives (e.g. Bungeni, Akoma Ntoso or Civix Suite) could work for government data gatekeepers. It’s also worth remembering that governments don’t want to be technological guinea pigs, so it’s worth putting some effort into finding out what other governments or bodies are doing and whether or not they could provide a suitable role model. But to come back to the friend-or-foe debate, it’s worth remembering that even if some government ministers and civil servants are implacably opposed to releasing data, there will be a forward-thinking champion somewhere within the apparatus. Find that person and at least you’ll have your toe in the data door.
One of the best things about TABridge was that it brought together practitioners and donors for an honest and frank exchange. It was the ideal forum, therefore, to look at the ingredients of a good donor-grantee relationship. We’ve always taken the view that an informal relationship built upon trust and regular contact is the best way of working with grantees. 90-page assessment forms, five-stage applications and three-volume impact assessments don’t really do it for us. But finding the right balance between rigour and oversight on the one hand and not wanting to overburden our grantees on the other is a key mix. Yet reporting – even where it’s quite light – does impose a burden on the grantee and donors need to respond by being flexible and recognising that an SMS project in the DRC or a youth social media initiative in Mozambique may not follow the project outline and timeline exactly. But maintaining an ongoing dialogue allows both donors and grantees to spot when things are going wrong and, hopefully, to do something about it.
There were dozens of different sessions at TABridge and I only managed to see a handful of them. If you’re interested in finding out more about the event and the key lessons learned, I’d recommend you take a look at the TAAI blog where you can trawl through several guest posts.