A movement is afoot to liberate global-development investment data to provide not only accountability, but opportunity maps, market research and effectiveness indicators, providing new visibility into possibilities for collaboration and innovation.
Though much of the current development data is public, from foreign-aid budgets, development agencies and public-sector sources, the effort provides something of a roadmap for “open data” in impact investing, including efforts to track the mostly private equity and debt deals to provide financing for social ventures.
The data-for-development movement is fueled by cheap new data-processing technologies, open-data licensing and nifty new approaches to data visualization that can put the projects in context with easy-to-grasp displays. And by a gritty crew of advocates, analysts, data geeks and other hackers who are prying loose the largely public-domain data sets that have been hiding in plain sight.
“No one had objections to making this data public, it just took a nudge and a platform through which to open access to the data.” writes Scott Gaul, director of analysis at Microfinance Information Exchange, or MIX, which provides performance information on microfinance institutions serving low-income clients.
What good is data? For just one example, any entrepreneur or investor considering an innovative financial service or product will want to know a lot about the 2.5 billion potential customers — including two-thirds of South Asians and three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africans — who currently have no formal accounts, not to mention the financial institutions already trying to reach them.
“Practitioners and policy-makers often need to know more about the dynamics of financial services providers within markets to identify gaps between supply and demand,” Gaul says.
The new maps build on the World Bank's “Global Findex,” funded by the Gates Foundation, which attempts to measure how people in 148 countries save, borrow, pay bills and manage risk. There's more World Bank information at Mapping for Results and Open Financial Data.
Last month's Development Data Challenge, a global hackathon, brought together a loose collection of hackers and backers who are prying loose public financing data and, increasingly, correlating it to effectiveness. The hackers are taking advantage of a new raft of open-source tools, such at MapBox's TileMill design studio for interactive mapping.
It's been a long effort, stretching from the Paris Declaration of 2005 to the Accra Agenda for Action in 2008 to the commitments made in Busan, Korea in 2011. “Generally, the level of information available is disappointingly low,” concludes the 2011 “aid transparency index” compiled by PublishWhatYouFund.org, which is backed by the Hewlett Foundation and the Open Society Institute.
Publish What You Fund has three recommendations for action: Political will and action to implement the “aid effectiveness agenda” agreed-upon in Busan; organizational commitment to publishing the data they have, collecting what they don't and making it all accessible; and increasing the reach of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) which provides agreed-upon common, open and international standards for the publication of aid data.
Indeed, some public investors are making fast progress. The report commends the Netherland, Sweden, the UK, the World Bank and, most recently, the United Nations Office for Project Services for major releases of data in the past year. The World Food Program recently became the 33rd major donor organization to sign up for IATI.