Break down the fortress: 4 reasons to use open data in non-profits

by Donata Columbro

According to the latest Aid Transparency Index, an increasing number of international agencies and governments have begun to publish their data on development funds. Some of this data are released in an open format, in full compliance with international standards such as those set forward by the IATI Convention.

Why should the third sector be interested (and educated) to use open data? In this entry, I outlined four reasons for which is make sense. In the light of my speech at the Varese News festival those reasons are:

  1. The demand for transparency keeps getting higher and higher. This is true for both governments and organizations managing public funds. Generally speaking, however, any player in the field requires a certain amount of trust from their reference community (citizens, stakeholders, volunteers, donors) to carry out his or her activities. Therefore, the public opinion has an increased need for trustworthy data, which also accessible and allow for change to be predicated upon them. The option of mandating non-profits and social enterprises alike to measure their social impact “ROI”, (meaning the “return of investment”) has already been discussed at European level. In this context, data are priceless in looking at the link between allocated resources and project outcomes, identifying excluded areas and subjects and making better decisions for the future. In other words, open data means improving accountability.
  2. It is a matter of communication. If you think about it, solutions for the world problems might already be there, but could be nested “in pdf files that nobody reads.” A recent World Bank report revealed how nearly one-third of the published reports has never been downloaded once. 40% of those was downloaded less than 100 times. Only 13% of the reports got downloaded 250 during their “shelf life”. And it is no coincidence that in 2010, the WB was one of the first international organizations to publish their database in an open format. A nice “side effect” of open data is the greater ease in producing infographics of one’s work, which is very useful in organizing contents and defining effective communication campaigns. Incidentally, the Guardian reminds us that one of the first data visualization in history was done in 1857 for the non-profit sector. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale drew an infographic of the mortality in soldiers so she could convince Queen Victoria to improve the conditions of military shelters.
  3. UN wants it. On November 8th, the draft report on Data revolution invoked by Ban ki moon was published. It calls for a greater commitment to the impact assessment of the funded projects and the monitoring of the living conditions of the population through those data. UN agencies such as UN Global Pulse were founded on this need. They want to help NGOs and non-profit organizations to get to a greater integration with governments and businesses so to be able to use their data in the design and evaluation of nonprofit projects.
  4. Let us stir up one thing or two. We need nonprofit to champion open data. Enthusiasm during a public debate is not missing, however let us keep in mind that more data is not equivalent to better data. The provision of data that are not accurate, old and/or difficult to have access to does not lead to greater transparency, but to data overload instead. NGOs and nonprofits should champion the revolution, by implementing good practice on how open data can help change and sharing difficulties and failures as well. Data users should be involved in this process.

If you’re still confused about what open data are, check out this video from the Trentino Open Data Challenge. It is a tale about open data.



Open development: sci-fi or opportunity?

«It is indeed hard to pick a good definition for this term. However, open development is a reality already, and many more opportunities are yet to be discovered». So what does open cooperation means in the context of the development? Pelle Aardema, a Dutch “technology evangelist” for nonprofits will explain just that as he is among the organizers of the Open development camp taking place in Amsterdam next October.

[Serena Carta – from the ICT4dev column]

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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



Open data for Africa


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.





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