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The Akvo Openaid product took a big step forward yesterday as UN Habitat launched the beta version of its Open UN-Habitat transparency initiative website at the World Urban Forum in Naples. I thought it would be timely to explain our contribution and how this has come about.

Opening up aid spend using IATI
Over the past two years a string of major organisations have signed up to a new standard way of describing how international development aid is being spent. This standard is called IATI – which stands for the International Aid Transparency Initiative. It creates a common way of defining and describing programmes and projects, which ultimately makes it easier to identify what is happening where, and slice, dice and compare activity.

The first wave of websites presenting top-level aid data in an open way were launched last year. Although not initially IATI-compliant, SIDA in Sweden launched Openaid.se, with a really nice user interface. DFID in the UK launched an IATI data portal and Openaid.nl came online profiling Dutch aid spend.

Akvo built the latter in a process that started in Spring 2011, when we worked with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create an IATI demonstrator in Akvo RSR which we first showed publicly in May 2011 at the Open Data Development Camp in Amsterdam. That involved us working deep inside the Dutch foreign ministry to get their data out of the various systems it was buried in and migrated that data to an IATI-compliant structure. It gave us valuable experience and we decided then to independently develop Openaid.nl into a website that would make it easy to search Dutch aid spend data by country and drill down to see what was happening where.

The Openaid.nl site and underlying systems were created by Akvo’s development partner Zimmerman & Zimmerman. Led by two brothers, Siem and Tristan Vaessen, I’m really excited about this partnership – Siem and his team have already injected a complementary style into Akvo and they run a distinct development and support operation, from their office in Amsterdam’s former IJ docks. Mark Charmer describes them as our “shadow factory“, a technique the British used to ramp up military production in the 1940s.

Building an open source IATI engine
The trouble with software that was emerging to support open aid visualisations was that it was being built by each country as a “proprietary” system. In other words it was being created for that unique application – Sweden’s very attractive Openaid.se interfaces for example were hard for others to reuse in other situations, or indeed to build on or improve. And DFID chose not to get involved in developing any kind of front-end visualisations, instead focusing on making the raw files available. Instead we wanted to create something that was open source and allowed data to be presented in attractive, useful ways, that could be used by various national governments and so called “multilateral” organisations (such as large UN agencies that are funded by many national governments). So we decided to build some systems that would serve both the immediate needs of the Dutch Foreign Ministry and be useful elsewhere too. The engine the Z&Z team has created is called OIPA – which in geek language stands for Openaid IATI Parser and API. But in everyday language we call this service Akvo Openaid.

Akvo Openaid takes IATI data and puts it into a database so that we can then re-use that data using an “API” (application programming interface – a kind of digital socket that other things can plug into). This allows us (and others) to build web interfaces on top of that API. For example, to add search, create maps or enable drill-down functions.

Akvo Openaid’s OIPA system takes the IATI data (published in a format known as XML). From that point on the information becomes available using the API. The first use of that was with Openaid.nl, that took Dutch aid data and republished it. The second version is Open UN-Habitat, that takes UN-Habitat’s IATI data and republishes it in a way that is easier to navigate and interrogate. These systems all run on the same software with the data pooled together, but with each representing a different window into it.

What next?
The third instance will be a full Openaid search, where all the public IATI data will be loaded in and made available in a similar interface. This will be launched during the Open Knowledge Festival aka OKFestival in Helsinki in mid September.

We are also working now on integrating the Akvo Openaid database with other sources of information. For example, Openaid will be able to ask Akvo RSR which IATI-related projects it contains and then create links to those so people can drill down from the top level to the specific, with RSR’s status updates and map points adding depth and story-driven context to the numbers.

Moving forward Z&Z leads the software development path for Akvo Openaid and is going to be heavily involved in shaping its communications – there are some nice campaigns in the wings (the image above is a preview of part of it) related to opening up development which I think can help make Akvo Openaid a real force for open change.

The work with UN Habitat itself is part of a new cooperation agreement Akvo signed with UN Habitat last month, with more things to come. The Open UN-Habitat site is still in beta version and the goal is to bring in much more content over time.

The development of Akvo Openaid to date has been funded by Akvo as an internal project. Zimmerman & Zimmerman has also contributed considerable in-kind development resource. Interestingly, the Open UN-Habitat project has been supported by SIDA in Sweden, which I think is a good sign of the Swedish development aid community now experimenting with open source initiatives as it seeks to innovate and open up development cooperation. In fact, you can see the background on the funding and objectives here, via Open UN-Habitat itself.

Peter van der Linde is partner director at Akvo.

Thank you to Siem Vaessen and Thomas Bjelkeman, for helping me describe some of the technicalities in simpler terms.