Using Data to Improve Foreign Assistance

We often forget the human aspect of data but improving data analytics and capabilities is more than just improving government. It means accessibility to water for someone halfway across the world, better building of schools, or smarter agricultural development methods in rural impoverished areas. When it comes down to it, big data can be harnessed to impact actual lives.

The U.S. Department of State is working to use data to improve foreign assistance. At GovLoop’s Data Analytics Event this year, Dennis Vega, Managing Director of Planning, Performance, and Systems in the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources (F) in the Department of State, left attendees to ponder, “How do we get good data and how do we use that data effectively to improve our work?”

This is especially difficult when there is increased demand for data transparency in foreign assistance and growing resource constraints. Foreignassistance.gov is the U.S. Government’s main tool to address transparency for U.S. foreign assistance spending. In addition to State, there are over 20 US agencies that implement foreign assistance, 10 of which are currently reporting to ForeignAssistance.gov. These 10 agencies make up 98% of the Foreign Assistance portfolio. Vega and his team have to consider these agencies while trying to make aid more useful, increase transparency, and hold governments accountable. While State continues to improve its transparency efforts for foreign aid, much work remains.

“Given the sheer width and depth of data on foreign assistance, we don’t have complete datasets for any of the 10 agencies,” Vega said. “We still have some significant gaps. We’re trying to meet our transparency initiatives, but full compliance would require reporting on data elements that we’re currently not addressing yet.”

Improving Data Quality and Transparency
At State, the burden on data managers is growing because it’s not only improving data quality and quantity, but also opening data to the public. Sometimes, it’s difficult to manage foreign assistance data because users tend to focus on what’s not said. This contributes to negative views where users see data that shows only a portion of aid promised to a country. Users are then led to believe that promises of more aid are left unfulfilled. Vega identifies this as one of the challenges with increasing data transparency.

“You can’t report on data that you don’t have,” he said. “We have to find a way to address the financial and human implications of collecting and reporting on more data. It’s about finding how to deploy resources and improve transparency to the public.”

Vega says a culture shift is required at State in order to open more data sets and to increase internal data use. There is also a dire need to separate good data from bad data. “The biggest thing is trying to find places where you can Frankenstein data together from multiple systems in a way that makes sense. People in the transparency community want to see every transaction, how much is being spent, and who’s spending it. We’re able to provide good data on the financial side, but the project level data, which is harder to get, is what people really want. We’ve been working with advocates and trying to set realistic goals based on their priorities.”

More data reporting, especially on financial data, makes it difficult to gain widespread support for data transparency. “Ultimately, we need to make the argument that increasing data transparency makes foreign assistance useful to the public, allows us to better serve stakeholders, and improves internal management,” he said.

Engaging with External Communities
The data gaps can undermine the usefulness of the data, but Vega is determined that the quality and quantity of data can be maximized through better use of tools and systems. Foreignassistance.gov was initially built with one dataset. To expand the website, Vega and his team realized that community engagement was key.

“We engaged in interviews, surveys, and tried to meet the needs of users,” Vega said. “The general public is interested in broader sets of data while super users are only interested in downloading large datasets for their own analyses. We use information from conversations with stakeholders to make sure the reformed site would meet they primary needs of these users.”

Methods that have improved these efforts are extensive outreach, collaboration with other bureaus, internal conversation, and engagement with external communities. “Strong working relationships give us the opportunity to strengthen our goals. We need to better engage advocacy community in a productive manner,” Vega said. “We ask the community to help us in areas where we’re struggling and gain supplemental data from other sources.”

Using Data to Serve
At the closing of the event, Vega shared the goals of State: “Collectively, we have made advances that have allowed us to continue to make foreign assistance data available and accessible. We will continue to produce more data faster and seek help from all of the community with the same goals.”

He shared the following recommendations:

  • Join forces with other bureaus and seek support
  • Regularly engage with stakeholders both internal and external
  • Set realistic goals
  • Look for creative solutions for collecting and using data
  • Have clear rules for privacy and redactions for data
  • Find titles, vendors, and descriptive standards for implementing data mechanisms
  • Meet regularly with stakeholders
  • Ensure privacy is just as much of a priority as transparency



 Photo Credit: Flickr/DFID- UK Department for International Development

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