With the end-date for the millennium development goals (MDGs) 2015, coming up fast, discussions for setting the next set of goals have begun. The working name for the next set of goals is ‘sustainable development goals’.

The millennium development goals have attracted quite a lot of critique. One of the core complaints has been around failure of data and data collection. We believe that there is significant scope for improving the data processes used to track both the current goals and the future goals. We believe it is imperative that these processes are improved. Improved data and systems to track the progress of achieving our goals will assist us in reaching them faster.

Picture: Discussing IATI API conventions at #OKFest. From the left: Siem Vaessen, Zimmerman & Zimmerman; John Adams, DFID. From the right: Pernilla, SIDA; Rolf Kleef, Open for Change. With apologies to those I forgot the names of.

Learn from success

The key to improvement, we believe, is to learn from earlier success and we have an excellent success story from the sector to learn from: the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).

The initiative has, since its inception, demonstrated how open systems can quickly bring a number of large and small organisations together: governments, CSOs, NGOs, multilaterals and commercial, to create open and effective systems around data and information sharing.

The critics of the IATI effort say that it doesn’t go far enough and that it doesn’t track outcomes, which is what matters, according to them. We agree, but this is not a failure of the open data systems, but a failure of setting the correct goals as well as resistance to change in the sector. IATI is a good example of successful open data systems.

The IATI initiative was launched on September 4, 2008, at a High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Accra, Ghana. The goal of the forum was to refocus attention worldwide on the steps needed to reach the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

The IATI standard was agreed in February 2011 and in September 2012 there were 33 signatories to the initiative, 22 countries endorsing the initiative and 81 publishers of IATI data. The published data covers 80% of the international aid flows (or over US$ 100 billion/year). [1]

In addition to the success in publishing data, we have also seen an ecosystem of open services and tools grow in a significant way.

We believe that this is an unprecedented success for open data covering financial flows.

Successful data for future goals

To quickly create successful data systems for the new goals, we argue that together we must make use of open systems. This will allow all of us to collaborate and to quickly reach the next level. It would the fastest method.

By open systems we mean:

  • an open standard to track the goals, complimented with an open data exchange format, as exemplified in the IATI XML standard
  • open data, where all the goal data is open with anyone free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike
  • open APIs, where different computer systems containing goal data can interchange the data automatically via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), the APIs should be open, meaning that their form may be copied freely by others as well as being accessible and usable by anyone
  • open source software, where the underlying software that drives the systems which collects, collates, stores and distributes the data are built on software that adhere to the open source standards set by the Open Source Initiative

We are now building information and data infrastructure to help us govern our society and our world. We believe it is imperative that we do this with open systems so that we, jointly as a society, own our governance infrastructure and the data that it produces, for the best possible outcome. Which, among other things, is about creating an open and transparent society for all.

This may sound like a really lofty goal. But you know what? We can do it. And we will.

Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson is a co-founder and co-director of Akvo Foundation.

[1] Presentation by Simon Parrish, Development Initiatives, Open Knowledge Festival 2012, Helsinki.