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Open Data at the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, the Open Data Playbook for Government. Download the full guide here.

In a perfect world, everyone would see the value and potential of your data, but that’s not always the case. There are things you can do to increase the likelihood that people will find your data and that it will be used to boost transparency, increase public engagement and fuel development of new products and services.

Dennis Vega, Managing Director at the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, and Jessica Klein, Special Advisor, know firsthand the challenges and rewards of engaging the public early and often. Below, Vega and Klein offered lessons learned from a recent redesign of ForeignAssistance.gov, a website dedicated to publishing budget, financial and award data from all U.S. government agencies that receive or implement foreign assistance funds.

Based on their challenges and the paths they took to overcome them, Vega and Klein had four tips about open data for agencies to keep in mind.

TIP #1: OPEN DATA IS NOT A DESTINATION.

CHALLENGE: One of the driving forces behind the redesign of ForeignAssistance.gov was the need to make data more accessible and easy to understand. The website wasn’t intuitive and seemed to get more complex as more data was added. It was clear that people were having trouble finding the data, based on their comments and online feedback.

SOLUTION: The office spent the past year preparing for the website redesign, which included a listening tour of sorts. Staff used open data events to offer demos of the site. “We used agile development,” Klein said. “We solicited feedback on the redesign concept, then on the mockups and then on the beta site.” The beta site was publicly available, with a disclaimer that the site should not be used for valid and official data. There’s also a feedback forum on the new site where people can report glitches or comment on the site. As new features were released, the office reached out to some of its target users and asked them to review the site.

TIP #2: IDENTIFY POTENTIAL USERS & THEIR NEEDS.

CHALLENGE: ForeignAssistance.gov was built as a tool for the public to easily view funding data, hence the various maps and charts on the site. But what about the super user, who is also interested in downloading raw datasets?

SOLUTION: The team tried to get a good sense of the user base, both internally and externally, Vega said. The office reached out to advocacy groups, nongovernment organizations that work on foreign assistance issues and congressional staffers to learn how they use foreign aid data and what information they would like to view that isn’t currently available. There are really two types of users, he said: general users, who hear something on the news and want to know how much money is being spent in an area, and super users, who want raw data to do analysis or produce new products. The site caters to both groups. Vega and his team considered the first thing each user group would want to see upon accessing the site and how the website’s navigation features could better facilitate their data searches.

TIP #3: MAKE DATA USABLE.

CHALLENGE: “I think the biggest thing is you want the data to be used,” Vega said. That’s why organizations must reach out to the broadest possible user base.

SOLUTION: One way of gauging usability and engagement is by measuring how long people are staying on the site and clicking through datasets and graphics. The hope is that the website redesign will reduce the bounce rate, or the number of people who visit only the homepage and then leave the site, Klein said. If users can find data more easily, they’ll likely spend more time on the site, which offers plenty of useful metadata, an easy-to-understand explanation about the federal budget process, frequently asked questions and a glossary of terms. Agencies must consider how many clicks it takes users to get to their data.

TIP #4: COLLABORATE WITH PARTNER AGENCIES.

CHALLENGE: The biggest challenge is getting complete data from more than 20 agencies that manage foreign assistance funds. For many of the agencies, tracking foreign assistance funds is not a core part of their mission, and there is a lack of data or systems to gather that information, Vega noted.

SOLUTION: “I think we have to be honest with people,” Vega said. The truth is that the systems aren’t there yet to automatically collect data. “We, fundamentally, as organizations believe in transparency,” he said. “We’re working on these systems’ aspects to get better and more complete information, but we understand that until we do that, it’s not going be as complete…or [that you’ll have to] replace what you’re having to do manually until we get to that point.”

Photo Credit: USAID Flickr

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