• Written by Henry Jewell
    23 April 2015

This is part of a series of posts by Akvo staff members called “Reflections and perspectives”, timed to coincide with the publishing of the Akvo 2014 Annual Report.

‘The days are long and the years are short’, is a phrase I have heard a lot of as a new parent – spare time very quickly obtains a high premium and before you know it months and even years have passed. This phrase takes on even more significance when at the same time you are trying to figure out parenthood, you are setting up a non-profit.  Akvo Foundation USA is a little over 18 months old and whilst it has been a whirlwind of activities, it is important to take stock to understand what we have achieved, where we are now and what our goals moving forward are, before the next 18 months has passed by in a flash.

So far our attention and energy has been focused on:

  • Obtaining funds for the core development of Akvo tools – nearly $1.5 Million raised from US partners to date
  • Introducing Akvo’s tools to new partners – through training, demonstrations and presentations
  • Working to promote the value of common standards, innovative ICT interventions, open data and how to use this data effectively

As with many things in life, there are priorities and trade offs that need to be made based on available resources. Even within these three main defined priority areas, trade offs had to be made, with the first two activities requiring a lot of time and effort, often not leaving enough time for the third activity, which in my opinion is critical to achieving our mission as an organization.

I am confident that if you are reading this you have most likely heard one of the following questions recently (and this is just a small sample) – Why are we collecting this information? What information should we be collecting? Is there a common standard for collecting this information? Once I have collected this information what will we use it for? What is the benefit of open data?

I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, and your sanity, I will leave it there. What this points to is context. Within international development there has been a huge push to gather information to understand the impact of our work and subsequently be able to learn lessons, share knowledge and in general just be more transparent over what we are doing. We have been pretty successful in the first part of this equation, collecting information, through the use of innovative ICT tools, but less so in being able to use this to improve understanding. 

Tools have proven very valuable, and innovative ICT tools will continue to be key components of a good strategy, but without context we run the risk of not changing the way the sector looks at information but instead just making it more efficient to end up in same place. I remember vividly the reaction during a presentation that I gave, when I mentioned that as an organization we do not want to help you collect bad quality, irrelevant data faster and then for it only to be sent to donors – there were a lot of smiles and nodding heads. Tools can be easy the context is difficult and technology should be used as a pathway and not a strategy in itself.

With this in mind, the work that we are currently doing on common standards – the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and common indicators in the WaSH sector for example), along with promoting open data and the use of this data to drive improved programmatic and policy decision making is very important to us and it is for this reason we are shifting the focus of the Foundation.

In 2015 the current plan is that a “B-Corporation” (a limited company with a socially sustainable mission) or a Limited Liability Company will be established to run the selling of Akvo software as a service, which will leave the Foundation to focus on the context described above. We will use our experience, expertise and network to help drive the conversations around standards and policies and assist organizations to collect good quality, relevant data to steer improved program implementation and act as a base for informed policy decisions.

Another focus will be to raise funds to develop new innovative ICT tools that can help achieve the desired results when embedded in a thoughtful strategy. We have secured funding to develop a new product under the initial name of Akvo DASH, an open-source, easy to use data mashup, analysis and publishing platform. An unprecedented opportunity exists to dramatically improve the outcomes from international development efforts by improving the insight into the new data streams that new data collection tools provide. Akvo DASH will make it easy for organizations to bring their own data into the system, combine it with other data, and then easily present maps, graphs, visualizations and automated reports. It will also be easy to publish such output on private or public dashboards, under any brand or URL. This will be a great conduit to be able to help provide context and understanding to the ever growing pile of information.

In March 2014, we posted an interview where we announced the US Foundation, along with rationale behind it, with one excerpt being very pertinent to this conversation:

‘Development issues are global, so we need to make sure we are part of the larger conversation on things like standards and policy changes so we can help direct them in a way that will be beneficial to governments and beneficiaries. We can also draw on our expanding networks around the world to promote transparency and the value of open data in development. ‘

Through the craziness of our day-to-day activities it is always important to remember why we are doing what we do. In my opinion, it always comes down to people. If the work we are doing is not improving a person’s life on the ground in a lasting manner we are just spinning our wheels and wasting opportunities.  For me, 2015 is about making sure we all work together to use information to lead to a better common understanding, and for improved results.

Henry Jewell is executive director of Akvo Foundation USA, based in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter @hejewell.

Photo by Loïc Sans.

Other stories in the ‘Reflections and perspectives’series: