Akvo is a nonprofit foundation based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. We build open source internet and mobile software which is used to make international development cooperation and aid activity more effective and transparent. We provide the software we build as Software as a Service (SaaS). The vast majority of our partners using our software also use the services provided by us.

In early 2012 we have three distinct products:

Akvo Really Simple Reporting (Akvo RSR) – a web-based content management system for making development projects and programmes visible online and reporting on progress on their projects.

Akvo Field Level Operations Watch (Akvo FLOW) – a system to collect, manage, analyse and display geographically-referenced monitoring and evaluation data. Akvo FLOW is an Android mobile phone and cloud based service.

Akvo OpenAid – a web-based tool for publishing large quantities of development aid data in a human-friendly format. Akvo OpenAid takes International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) XML data and transforms it into an attractive web site with maps making it searchable and understandable.

As they mature, the Akvo products will be well integrated with each other, but you can use them independently of each other if you want to.

Thomas Bjelkeman, presenting Akvo’s work at the recent SDN Workshop at the World Bank.

The basic premise

We at Akvo have been building the Akvo platform since 2007, when we started working on Akvo RSR. At that time it was clear to us that the whole development sector would hugely benefit from a shared set of tools. It was also clear that the work to develop these tools should be collaborative and open in nature. In other words: open source, open data, open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and open standards.

Our goal is to provide the best online and mobile services available in the international development sector and to provide our software on an open basis.

We believe that the future is an intrinsically connected society where internet and mobile phone services are available everywhere. Even today, many people have a mobile phone before they have access to adequate sanitation facilities. We are building services which fit this future.

Open source software

We believe the right way forward is to build open software. There are several reasons for this, but key reasons are:

Development aid money shouldn’t be spent on building proprietary software, when the goal is to achieve a common good. We believe we have a duty to share the tools we build as widely as possible. At the same time we believe that anyone using these products has a moral responsibility to share back any improvements they make to them. This is reflected in the licensing terms we use for our work. (AGPL for software, CC-BY-SA for content, and CC-BY-SA-NC for certain user contributed content.)

That said, we also strongly believe that developing and operating Software as a Service products is a complex task: something not everyone should do and certainly not something most people want to do. There are huge scale benefits to be had when hundreds or thousands of organisations are using the same software and databases to do their work and collaborate. There is a case for running these types of services in a federated environment, (for the none-techies, independent systems that work together). However the resources to do so (people and money) are sufficiently scarce that we believe it is a better investment at this point to try to get everyone to use the same software instances, under common management.

So, why open source, if we are all going to run on the same instance of software anyway?

We believe that open sourcing the products that we build, at this stage of development, is primarily an insurance policy for our partners and investors. If we do a bad job, they are welcome to take the software, fork it (or not), and ask someone else to run it and develop it as they see fit. So far, our partners like what we do and are staying with us. It is significantly cheaper to use our services than to build and run your own. We intend to keep it that way.

However, as we go forward, we will make the Akvo products truly open source – i.e. not only code which is available under an open license – but with good documentation, easy installation and a thriving community around them. We also believe that the products that Akvo is building, in particular Akvo RSR and Akvo FLOW, have massive potential outside of development aid. If a local government or NGO in Burkina Faso can show their great work and benefit from a project visualisation system, with frequent updates and maps that monitors and shows the effectiveness of their work, why shouldn’t the same be true in Ann Arbour, Michigan; Bangalore, India; or Stockholm, Sweden? Quite frankly, internet and mobile tools for local government, wherever you are in the world could do with a significant upgrade. We have chosen to start with development aid related work, but we see that this could go way beyond that.

Aid effectiveness

John Wanamaker, considered the father of modern marketing, famously said “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” I personally believe that the same is true for development cooperation and aid. I know a lot of it is very effective, as I have seen some with my own eyes, and a lot of people I trust do a fabulous job working in the sector. But we also come across the stuff that doesn’t work – corruption, bad practices and failures at many different levels. The sector is bad at showing and sharing what does and does not work. In some cases disastrously so. There is a lot of monitoring and reporting going on. But the vast majority of it ends up in inch-thick paper reports, filed away in some foreign ministry or other funder’s basement, as what I like to call “cover-your-ass” reports. This information is inherently useless for anything else. This needs to change.

We believe that open data and open information systems are going to be critical to improve the effectiveness of development aid.

Open data, open APIs, open standards

The revolution that the internet has given us is based on open source software, open standards, open data and open APIs. There is much which is also closed, but it rests on that which is open. One example is the fabulously successful Apple iOS platform (iPhone, iPad, etc.). Apple iOS is built on top of Berkeley UNIX (BSD), an open source operating system, using open standards such as internet and mobile phone standards, to communicate. A key component, the Safari web browser (WebKit), is an open source effort, where companies such as Apple, Google, Nokia and Samsung – all fierce competitors – collaborate on the same software.

Development collaboration and aid organisations cannot afford not to collaborate around information systems and tools.

We must adopt open standards, like IATI XML. We need to keep developing IATI XML to not only be about large donor spending – which is what it about today – but also about outcomes and effectiveness. We must also not give in to the push by large scale bureaucracies to try to get control over the continued standards process, as this will inherently bog down and quite possibly kill the effort in its infancy.

We must provide open data and open APIs in our systems. As I said the other day in a presentation at the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) Forum at the World Bank, 23 February 2012 (see video above), there is a lot of talk about the benefits of open data and how everyone likes it, how open data and APIs spawn whole new eco-systems of tools and services from which we all benefit from. But the elephant in the room, which hardly anyone talks about, is that nearly everyone involved in the process is afraid. We know that a lot of our development cooperation and aid work doesn’t work. And we are afraid of what will happen when this becomes visible in a way which it hasn’t been before. Will my organisation lose reputation? Will we lose our funding? Will I be blamed? Will I lose my job?

We cannot allow this fear of open data to stop us doing our work effectively. If we don’t face our fears and start looking at our work in an honest attempt to improve it, openly and without fear, we will fail and we will keep failing.

End-to-end transparency

The Akvo products have come about out of a need for better information sharing systems in the development sector. Today knowledge is essentially locked up in old fashioned paper reports and proprietary data systems. Funding flows are not transparent and feedback loops are flawed and opaque. To address this we at Akvo created three products, to be part of something we have started to call an end-to-end transparency system.
Akvo builds and operates a number of components of this system, but we don’t intend to build it all. Other components such as Ushahidi, FrontLine SMS, One Percent Club, Sahanna and many others provide important components. The goal is that we can all collaborate and interoperate in an open way and by doing so we will help create better development cooperation and aid.

This blog post is part of a series, (not all written yet), which describes what we at Akvo are doing, how we are doing it and why:

The Akvo platform, why, how and what (this post) [part 1]
The Akvo platform, Akvo FLOW [part 2]
The Akvo platform, Akvo RSR [part 3]
The Akvo platform, Akvo OpenAid (coming soon) [part 4]

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