Global Policy Studies & International Security LBJ School Philanthropy & Non-Profit Organizations

The Trouble with Data in International Aid Projects

Second in a series by Alexandra Noble (LBJ MGPS Student) covering her internship at InterAction.

A major challenge of international development is the lack of data on what actually works. It is often hard to know the long-term benefits produced by aid projects, but data is changing that. Our conception of the trajectory and gains that have been made in the development field is becoming clearer with increasing amounts of data. (I highly recommend watching any of Hans Rosling’s talks for more information on this).

Nonetheless, much of the data that exists is ultimately buried in long Excel spreadsheets that most people are not trained to read or understand. InterAction works to not only collect the data, but also to make it more accessible, usable, and meaningful to a diverse set of aid practitioners.

Through my internship, I am working with InterAction’s Global Development Practice Team on the NGO Aid Map, an interactive map that shows locations around the world where participating member organizations are working. Participation in the map is completely voluntary, which makes it all the more impressive that the map represents 95 organizations and over 3,800 active projects, with an additional 10,000+ inactive projects in the archive.

In addition to showing where the organizations work, the map allows you to click on a project for details such as project description, target groups, and duration, making the organizations and their aid projects more transparent. The site also features blog posts and visuals to explain the importance of aid transparency and its different dimensions.

While the project has increased transparency and visibility of organizations, more work remains. Just collecting data doesn’t help if it is not usable. For example, there is information that an organization must provide when submitting to the NGO Aid Map, such as the project name and the country the project is in, but organizations leave many optional fields blank. Important information like budget or funding sources are sometimes not reported. This can result in data that is incomplete, disjointed, and difficult to use.

In order to combat this, the mapping team recently launched the Data Quality Award, a five-month competition to increase the quality of the data provided. The mapping team scores—both qualitatively and quantitatively—the data of each organization that enters and gives the organizations the opportunity to increase their score by providing more complete data. The eventual winner of this competition receives $10,000 of unrestricted funds.

When so much of development data is incompatible, incomplete, and/or difficult to work with, it’s exciting to work on an initiative that is trying to fix this problem. I have been fortunate to work with people who are passionate not just about collecting data, but about pushing for high quality, usable data.

Edited by Jon Brandt

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