Notes from the UK’s largest* development conference

by Jo Pratt

*Probably.
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In 2013, for the first time, the UK met its target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid. This represented the overdue fulfilment of a commitment made over 40 years ago, and a victory for campaigners. Besides Britain, only Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates spent more than 0.7% of their national income in aid in 2013. The next step is to enshrine the 0.7% in law, a move which gained cross-party support when a Private Members Bill tabled by Liberal Democrat MP Michael Moore passed its second reading in the House of Commons in September this year. 

Michael Moore was one of a host of heavy-weight speakers and panellists at the Redefining Development conference I attended in Central London last week organised by Bond, the UK membership body for organisations working in international development. Other big names included Bill Gates, UK Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening and prominent anti-apartheid campaigner and former minister of the South African government under Nelson Mandela, Jay Naidoo (who I’m over-excited to note now follows me on Twitter). Read More »

Akvo RSR 3. The journey so far.

by Adrian Collier

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Earlier this year, I embarked on a journey into user experience design and development. You see, I’ve always been a database person, but I knew we needed to think much more about what’s known in the tech industry as “UX”. So I got into studying user experience academically and applying the insights day to day. It’s been great to do – I was able to improve my understanding of how users are actually understanding the product I manage, and how they don’t, and start to gain more understanding of what might be done to improve the overall experience people have when using Akvo Really Simple Reporting (RSR).

When Akvo RSR was conceived, it was as a project database that would support the opening up of highly networked partnership structures in international development cooperation - a web-based multi-tenanted content management system. It was designed to scale to thousands of projects. And today we have 2137 projects online, covering project budgets worth over €1 billion. So in many senses it’s achieved what we’d wanted – a rock solid web-based project database used by lots of organisations. But it’s set to grow in use dramatically, so now is the time to look at how it’s used – it’s vital to me that using RSR is not seen as a burden, an extra thing to be done. I want it to be a joy to use. How we design RSR from here will absolutely affect its uptake and the attitude users have towards it.

Improving user experience is a journey of discovery and starts at the source of truth for all software products – the user.

After undertaking many informal interviews, speaking with internal and external users and analysing as much quantitative (and a little qualitative) data about RSR I could get my hands on, I started producing some materials that would help pave the way for improvements.
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Business drives access to water in Ghana

by Marten Schoonman

SMARTerWAH maps“Before we go out to collect data we first talk with the districts’ Community Development Officers. They know all the communities within the district. This way you are sure that when the enumerator team goes out to the field, they will not leave any community unattended. I advise you all to do the same.”

These were the words of Mohammed Kplega who is an information technology specialist for the Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA) in Ghana’s Western Region. They were pronounced during a workshop on data cleaning and analysis held in Koforidua, Ghana October 14-17. People from six regions of Ghana travelled to a conference centre outside Accra. The participants had been previously trained by Akvo during June 2014 at a ‘training of trainers’ workshop and they in turn have trained government staff in their districts. This meeting aimed to take stock of progress and to learn more about data cleaning and analysis and reporting on data about rural water facilities in Ghana. In the intervening time, over 17,500 data points (filled surveys) were collected by 150 survey enumerators. This is about 50% of the expected number of data points for the target six regions, and it is quite an achievement for the short period of time involved. 

Top left: six out of ten regions in Ghana are currently mapping water facilities (indicated in green) funded through SMARTerWASH. The bubbles represent the rural population per region. Right: over 17,500 data points (filled surveys on rural and community water supplies, shown here in clusters) have been collected to date across 119 districts.

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Bringing our own work to life, online

by Emily Armanetti

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Our pup Guido. Amsterdam, August 2013. Photo credit: Emily Armanetti.
One of the key things we do at Akvo is help our partners bring their work to life, online. This is exactly what our Akvo RSR tool is designed to do – capture project activity and describe programmes in a dynamic way which can include text, images and videos. Today, more than €1billion in programmes and projects are visible online in Akvo RSR.

We fundamentally believe in transparency. It’s a key principle on which our organisation was founded. We’ve spent years helping organisations achieve this by bringing networks of projects online and improving how they monitor and evaluate their work so that international aid can be more effective. So how are we doing this ourselves?
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Mingalabar connectivity?

by Frodo van Oostveen

Mingalabar connectivity

Street view, Sule Pagoda Yangon. Photo credit: Frodo van Oostveen.

The first tweet I posted in Myanmar was directly from the taxi on my way from Yangon airport to the Inle Valley Bed & Breakfast on Pyay Road. Back in March, I wrote about feeling the change in Myanmar and I still feel it happening. At the airport it was easy to buy an Ooredoo SIM card for 1,500 kyat ($1.50) with additional data top up for 5,000 kyat ($5). During my last visit, I needed to rent a SIM card (without data), or had the option of buying a SIM card for the unrealistic amount of around $2,000 (BusinessWeek: When a SIM Card goes from $2,000 to $1.50).

Surprisingly Ooredoo Myanmar re-tweeted and favorited my tweet, as I think they were happy with the compliment regarding connectivity. Later on I realised that the reliability of Internet access is definitely not yet a common thing in Yangon.
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Marketing Akvo – part 1

by Mark Charmer

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I really like being in 2014. Seriously, I do.

I know parts of the world are in a real mess, but I think there’s also an amazing renaissance happening right now, in how we develop understanding and how people express themselves. Ultimately I am convinced this will win out.

On that basis, we’re lined up to fix a lot of really fundamental problems over the coming 50 years or so. There’s no doubt the Ebola crisis in West Africa is a wake-up call that accepting chronic poverty, and terrible basic health and utility infrastructure, is not a sustainable approach to global security, let alone global development. That the 85 richest people on the planet are as wealthly as the poorest half of it, is something I hope we’ll look back at one day like we now look back on how odd the First World War seems, 100 years on. It also means I’m one of the world’s richest one per cent. Which I find ridiculous. So I figure I’m one of the world’s richest one per cent who doesn’t think that’s right. And I know I’m not alone.

As Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima put it in January this year, three and a half billion people own no more than a tiny “elite” who could all fit together on a London bus.

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A London bus. Tottenham Court Road. Saturday, 1 November 2014.
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Free is great, as long as you don’t depend on it.

by Peter van der Linde

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My colleague Mark Charmer once described me as a super-accountant. I only got what he meant much later. I like to find money – to get things done, yes. And I like to structure things in creative ways so everybody is happy.

Back in 2009 when we just started Akvo, I talked the Rabobank into providing us with a €500,000 loan, based on a business plan we wrote in the months before. We did not have any operational income by then. It was, well, a challenge.

The director of the Rabobank pushed the plan that we worked on for months across the table.

“So you really expect me to think this is realistic?”

Good question.

I thought and replied, “No, we are going to over-perform, or fail – but you would not have trusted or liked those numbers.”

He laughed. “What assets do you have if you fail?”

“Chairs, desks and computers, that would be pretty much it”.

He liked it. Sure, he buffered his risks, but he liked it – and the next day we got our loan.

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Dear UN: we’re all a part of the data revolution. #akvo

by Stefan Kraus

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In August, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established an “Independent Expert Advisory Group” to provide advice on a “data revolution for sustainable development”, as part of the post-2015 development agenda process.

Post-2015 is United Nations-speak for “What comes after the Millennium Development Goals?” aka the MDGs; this set of 15-year global targets related to poverty reduction and international development. They run out in 2015, so what comes next occupies much debate around the UN and the organisations that work to influence it.

The MDGs played a massive role in framing Akvo. We were in effect a response to MDG No.7, focused on water and sanitation. Most funding in our early years, and much of our partners’ programme work today, is influenced by their priorities. 

The first seven years of the Millennium brought all sorts of new internet and computing technologies, and then the gigantic leap of touch-screen smartphones, first in 2007 with the Apple iPhone and followed soon by Android and other devices. Web plus mobile means 2015 is a completely different place in terms of data tools, from 1999. So can you begin to imagine what 2030 will be like compared to 2014? We use the term “see it happen” in our work. But in this case “you ain’t seen nothing yet” is probably more apt.

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Open data and the aid boom in the Pacific: Part II

by Amitangshu Acharya

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Above: A field visit to Mele, Vanuatu. October 2014. Photo credit: Lissy van Noort.

In part I of this series, I outlined the first steps in our collaboration with UNICEF and the Department of Mines, Geology and Water Resources (DGMWR) to introduce mobile-based data and asset management tools to Vanuatu as part of developing its national water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) database. Generally, this shift from “data free” to “real time” data would have been worth celebrating. But scarcely had we put down our beer bottles, than we had started planning for the next phase.
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Open data and the aid boom in the Pacific: Part I

by Amitangshu Acharya

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Above: Port Vila Market, a bustling sight in the capital of Vanuatu. Port Vila, Vanuatu. October 2014. Photo credit: Lissy van Noort.

The Republic of Vanuatu is as old as I am. Both of us were born in the 80s, and are stepping into our early thirties together. When a country is this young, the mortar used to build structures of governance is so fresh, you can almost smell it.

In this Rorschach ink dot of an island nation, UNICEF Pacific collaborated with us to bring Akvo FLOW to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (MLNR) and specifically to the Department of Geology, Mines and Water Resources (DGMWR). What we gathered from our very first engagement was that the absence of data is a serious concern in this region. International aid workers use a cathartic term – “data-free” – to describe this issue. In a coconut shell, it means that action is unfettered from the shackles of evidence. As cool as it sounds (and perhaps to many it may appear as a reflection of the free and relaxed spirit of the Pacific islands), in reality, eight Pacific countries are on the top 20 list of the most aid dependent nations in the world. For example, total Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) in 2008 to Vanuatu translated into 392 USD per capita and approximately 10% of its Gross National Income. Jonathan Pryke, a researcher at the Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific, has written a number of blogs on this phenomenon of “aid boom” in the Pacific.
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