The UNDP launched an open data browser (open.undp.org) today, implementing its voluntary commitment to IATI, an initiative to make aid information easier to access, understand and use. Through mapping and visualizing $5.8+ billion in funding data across 6,000+ projects in 177 countries, users can search by any funding cataloger, country, and donor or recipient to find information about individual UNDP project funding and outcomes. We spoke with the brains behind the browser, Mark Cardwell, UNDP Chief of Online Communications, and Ruth Del Campo, the IATI project coordinator (who previously developed OpenAidRegister, a free tool for NGOs like us to quickly publish to IATI).
The Open UNDP team told us that part of the website’s success will come from offering widgets that allow others to easily embed UNDP open aid data into other websites and digital channels (here’s an example from a World Bank blog post earlier today). Country offices may use widgets to visualize their own projects on the website. The site is definitely not just an Excel spreadsheet. For example, with help from Development Seed (disclosure: Development Seed head Eric Gundersen serves on the Global Integrity board), the website has clean visuals and plenty of interactivity.
Other tech and open data gurus agree the site isn’t just a pretty (inter)face. The World Bank’s Open Data Evangelist, Tariq Khokhar praises it for having a simple API (for extracting raw data to other applications) and “unique and sensible URLs for each page.” Although it looks simple now, the Open UNDP Team discovered that their biggest challenge in building open.undp.org wasn’t technical but instead methodological: streamlining diverse databases, nomenclature, and the UN's own vocabulary and definitions to be understood by anyone and then figuring out the best way to show those data to outsiders. Given that UNDP is such a large international institution with literally thousands of projects, our 13-person, 3-location office can only imagine this is quite the feat!
Naturally, as a first release there are some limits to the portal. Data is only mapped at the national level, the result being giant dots centered on capital cities representing hundreds of projects that took place across the entire country. Once you drill down into specific projects, you’re still left to read horribly long PDFs to try and understand what the project was actually all about. This speaks to the limits of opening up project data retroactively: there’s no simple way to code deeper project information without investing thousands of additional hours of manpower, something even the largest institution like UNDP cannot justify, frankly. Solving this requires a holistic revamp of project management and archival systems to ensure that future projects and data are fully machine-readable from the start, not left to teams of interns and contractors to pore over and code years later.
In the near future, Open UNDP team anticipates releasing geocoded data at the subnational level, (this will help avoid the giant capital city dot problem) and eventually they hope to provide real-time project updates by linking UNDP project manager tweets to project pages on the site. We think that’d be cool.
As a member of IATI, we warmly congratulate UNDP on their release of this data. We are excited to see the website take off as a tool to make sure aid works more effectively.
— Carrie Golden
— Image Credit: Open.undp.org