22 September 2011

FWD: Some Promise and Some Transparency

The numbers are big when talking about the crisis in the Horn of Africa. Recent estimates say that 750,000 lives are at risk largely due to the drought in Somalia with sum of 13 million people impacted by the drought in some way. The need is clear, the response it happening, but the buzz is low. The earthquakes in Haiti and Japan showed how quickly people can act in response to a crisis, but the same enthusiasm and financial support has not come to the Pakistani flood victims the past two years and people in the Horn of Africa.

USAID is trying to change that. On Monday, USAID Administrator Shah announced that USAID would be launching the FWD (Famine, War, and Drought) campaign to focus on the Horn of Africa Crisis. The site features quick hitting infographics and maps of the HoA. Ranging from rainfall to staple prices, people can be informed with what is happening in the region.

Shah, in his talk and later comments, reiterated the importance of providing this information. Coupling that with the ability to make a text donation, he believes that this can be a way to grow support. This is also seen as a step in the direction of providing more open data. When going to the site, you can click around the map to pull up what will supposedly be constantly updated information.

“If I am seeing this information on my desk, why am I not sharing it with all of you?” Shah said explaining part of his motivation.

This got some excitement from the crowd and the administrator was clearly pleased with the effort, but the discussion of what USAID was actually doing in the HoA was missing from the conversation. Transparency efforts had been tried before and are still a work in progress from USAID.

“We have to really get good at what we are doing on the Horn. If we can use GIS to map where the programs, projects, vulnerabilities, key issues and learn how to do that and learn how to get people to engage on that data platform and see how we can get people to engage in that.”

Shah acknowledged that some of the information was not completely ready and can be accessed through more traditional means such as PDF documents. The decision was made to put together the site sooner and without all of the data filled out rather than later.

When I followed up with how they were partnering with other organizations to pull data, it became clear that transparency is something that Shah hopes to be a USAID leadership opportunity.

“What we have tried to do is make our data systems more transparent. I think we are just on the cusp on this. There is no reason why we can’t have a Google maps platform that shows where the problems are, where the solutions are, and what we are doing as a global community," said Shah.

"Not just have the United States government but have it be everyone working together. There is no reason why it can’t be one systematic presentation.”

The promise of greater transparency is certainly exciting, but it will be important to see if the data is updated and what is shared. Right now, the FWD site only lists bubbles of where projects exist and what kind of projects are being implemented based on a series of categories.

That is a far cry from transparency and the mapping integration that Shah hopes to accomplish. However, it was evident in the way that he spoke about the potential for the tool that Shah aspires to push forward.