In the international development sector, the number of documents and data available online is vast, but when it comes to mining and interpreting this data, things become more complicated.
Robert Bourgoing discovered this roadblock during his nine years working at the Global Fund. During this time, Bourgoing worked to promote data transparency by building a website to track every dollar the Global Fund received and show people where this money went.
“I realized that almost no one was making use of this transparency,” he said. “No one was really making use of what I thought was supposed to be a treasure trove of stories for journalists. It opened my eyes to the fact that transparency is not only about piling up data and documents on a website. It’s not enough.”
Seeing a need to improve current training initiatives, Bourgoing decided to create AidInfoPlus, a free online training platform to help encourage transparency and accountability in international aid by showing journalists, activists, aid workers and others how to use open data.
“What I wanted to do is to help people gain control over information related to aid, as there is US$130 billion spent every year on this,” he said. “Where does it all go? Who gets it, to do what, with what success?"
Bourgoing said AidInfoPlus is set to launch early next year once it acquires enough seed funding. AidInfoPlus will encourage journalists to mine the “treasure trove” of online aid data, allowing them to discover stories that hold governments and development organizations accountable. The platform aims to do so through a multifaceted approach:
The AI+ data hotline
The central component of the AidInfoPlus platform is its data hotline — a service in which users can ask any question related to searching for, accessing and understanding development data online.
In response to these questions, the AidInfoPlus team will create short, step-by-step video tutorials, Bourgoing explained. These expert tutorials will cover a wide range of topics, including choosing the right online resources and tools; using search engines; and scraping, cleaning, verifying and visualizing data. Turnaround for these responses will vary depending on the complexity of the question and the journalists’ deadlines, but Bourgoing said journalists should receive their answers within a day or two. Answers will be provided in English and French.
“We want to help give not only answers, but publicly show the thought process to get to this information in a step-by-step way,” Bourgoing said. “Over time, these little units of training will grow into an online reference of how to search for aid flows — where the money came from, where it went, who got money to do what.”
Prior to AidInfoPlus' official launch, Bourgoing said he'll do his best to answer questions sent to the data hotline. However, its capacity will be limited before it gets funding.
In addition to its data hotline, AidInfoPlus will produce longer, more in-depth video presentations related to mining global development data. These videos, which resemble webinars, will introduce users to some of the web’s richest aid data resources, such as the World Bank, USAID, UNICEF and, of course, the Global Fund’s data library. They will also cover aid data search tools like OECD and IATI, as well as data visualization platforms.
“I’ve trained journalists and research librarians in doing investigations on the Internet, and I think there is a huge need for building capacity to use the Internet in general,” Bourgoing said. “And by data, I mean data in a broad sense — not only figures, but also text documents and what is published on social media. We would give very concrete and practical examples for these.”
AidInfoPlus will also publish blog posts to keep users updated on the latest data search tools. When used in conjunction with AidInfoPlus’ data hotline and video presentations, these blog entries can provide valuable and practical tools for presenting aid data in one’s stories.
In doing so, Bourgoing said AidInfoPlus will ultimately help improve more lives worldwide by making every dollar spent in development do more.
“There is nothing like this right now,” he said. “We’re talking about data, data, data, but it’s all about saving and improving more lives with the same amount of money by coordinating efforts, making sure the money is spent in the right place for the right people and fighting corruption.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.