Monday, 30 August 2010

Information wants to be free

Oxfam has broken ranks.

In response to my formal complaint that the NGO was breaching its 'Open Information Policy', Oxfam have sent me the details of every overseas project they funded in 2009-10.

They admitted there had "been a breakdown in our internal communications" and that the information should have been made available immediately. Thanks to Joss Saunders (Company Secretary) for doing the right thing!

The spreadsheet of all 1017 projects is now online. It contains the title, location and allocated funds for every project in 2009-10. I had to scan in the list (the originals are here) so some of the titles have come out a bit dodgy (but I typed in the expenditures so they should be kosher).

As far as I'm aware this is the first time a major British international development NGO has published their spending to this level of detail. It's a really exciting time for the open aid data movement.

Some of the projects have laughable names: "Social dialogue and pedogic strategy on racism in Guatemala [sic]" and "Promoting active citizenship for the Right to the City in Cochabamba". But let's not judge a project by its title. Instead we should encourage Oxfam to release more information about the purpose and evaluation of these projects so that they can be properly judged.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that the funding for the projects follows a log-normal distribution (see the chart here). So the small projects are tiny compared to the big ones. If we look more closely at the data we can see that Oxfam is active in about 60 countries, but in about half of these it spends less than a £1m (at that level of funding a country office can't do much more than maintain a physical presence). Wouldn't it be better if Oxfam concentrated on making a measurable difference in just a few places?

There's obviously a lot more analysis to be done. What's interesting about working with this data is that as soon as you have it you want to know more: 'what is this project?', 'why was so much spent on that?', 'were any of them effective?' Hopefully the pressure on Oxfam (and others) to publish aid data will grow - and not diminish - as a result of them taking this first tentative step towards greater transparency.

1 comment:

Pete Bass said...

This is a really good campaign.

It's a bit crazy that only one charity has responded so far when they all agree in principle that accountability and transparency are important.

Hopefully this will encourage more of them to "break ranks"