Open data for the cooperation, Italy does not even know what we’re talking about

Data can make a difference, in international cooperation as well. They can you tell us if the project has failed or has been run successfully. They can help us understand the overall strategy of a non-governmental organization and show in what direction to develop aid policies of governments. How active is Italy in these practices of transparency?

by Donata Columbro

From a governance perspective, Italy is not very active. At the time of my writing, the website of the Italian cooperation does not even have a section for available statistics. Every link to regulations, reports and country sheets lead to pdf documents, a format that could be further away from the official definition of open data and the meaning of releasing data in open formats.

As early as 2012, the Vice President of the World Bank Sanjay Pradhan stressed the importance of open data to change how to plan cooperation actions. “Nowadays, developing countries will not accept secondhand solutions from the United States, Europe or the World Bank. On the other hand, they gain inspiration, hope and practical skills from successful emerging economies of the South. They want to know how China in 30 years has lifted 500 million people from poverty. They also want to know how the Oportunidades in Mexico program has improved the education and nutrition of millions of children. The new ecosystem of open knowledge fluxes works in this way, as knowledge does not transfer just from North to South, but also from South to South, and even from South to North”.

What open data are

Let us start with what they are not. They are not “numbers” in a pdf file, and they also are not reports. According to the Open Data Handbook, they are “data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone, although they might need to cite the source and be shared with the same type of license with which they were originally issued”. If we want to understand what it means to have an open data program in development cooperation, we can just browse the UK site of co-operation. A “development tracker” follows the citizen in the reading of public spending numbers in development assistance, with all the original data sets freely available and ready to use in any format, per project and per country. The Swedish and Norwegian cooperation sites take the same approach. In order to follow a similar approach in Italy, you need to use individual web documentary, such as Follow the money (getting data from the OECD). American cooperation moves far beyond it, as it even has a profile on GitHub, a platform where developers upload their open source software projects and discuss changes with the community.

 

(comparison between the Italian and British cooperation websites)

In his Ted Talk, Pradhan highlighted the importance of accompanying the data release by humanitarian organizations with open government a startup project. Both actions are aimed at openness, transparency and civic participation in all fields and by the Governments of both the North and the South. Unfortunately, Italy lags behind in this field as well, given that a new rejection was issued a few weeks ago by Independent Reporting Mechanism of Open Government Partnership (OGP). Ernesto Belisario analyzed it in depth on Wired.

Caution: do not confuse “open data” with “big data”. The latter term refers to data collected in large quantities from either public or private companies, which can be processed by powerful software often unavailable to non-governmental organizations or editorial boards. The magnitude of big data is of the order of the zettabyte, i.e. billion terabytes, such as the phone records collected by the American Security Agency in its Prism surveillance program. The collection, analysis and visualization of big data also require the power of thousands of servers (read the definition on Wikipedia).

Aid transparency Initiative

Even the enrollment of organizations in the Aid Transparency Initiative has not been very successful among Italian NGOs. The International Aid Transparency Initiative was presented in 2008 at a forum on aid effectiveness in Accra. It is a platform for the release of open data on aid, whose goal is to make the information on aids easier to access, use, and understand. Data are uploaded through the AidStream application. How many Italian NGOs registered for it? None.

Available international databases

Collections of internationally data are available to journalists and developers wanting to explore cooperation for development through data visualization. Here is a list that we will try to keep updated with your suggestions:

World Bank

UNDP

OECD

Open data for Africa

USAID

Directorate-General for development and cooperation EU

ODA (Official Development Assistance)

Update from Italy (21 March 15:18 hrs) – and some good news

The word “open data” is mentioned in the 2014-2016 guidelines and policies for the Italian cooperation, under the accountability and transparency paragraph.  The document states that “in 2014, during the Italian Presidency of the EU, an open data platform will be launched. It will be meant to make all funding and cooperation data public and useful. The database will help achieve transparency and accountability objectives with respect to “internal” guidelines towards the partners and the OECD-Dac. Additionally, it will help the citizenship at large (citizens, researchers, journalists) to get acquainted with cooperation, its numbers, and its stories. All of this will be disseminated through multimedia materials dealing with the presence of Italian cooperation in single countries and the implementation of individual projects”.

We are looking forward to being able to gain access to such an information mine.