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Getting started with IATI - an expert interview with Maaike Blom

April 21, 2021

Maaike Blom, CEO of IATI frontrunner Data4Development walks us through the International Aid Transparency Initiative and the opportunities & challenges of publishing to IATI. Maaike also shares some helpful tips and resources for individuals and organisations looking to learn more while reflecting upon her own journey through this initiative. Stay with us as we explore IATI through Maaike’s perspective! 

Tell us about your role at Data4Development (D4D)?

I am the CEO and one of the founders of D4D. My role involves providing strategic guidance to the implementation projects we are involved in while steering the sales and marketing team and maintaining our external relations – I represent D4D at different conferences, seminars, lectures etc.

When did your team at D4D first learn about the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)?

D4D was founded in 2015 and we have been connected to IATI since day one. Our Chief-Tech Officer (CTO) Rolf Kleef has also been an integral part of the IATI discussions since its launch in 2008. My business partner Gyan Mahadew and I got together while heading an IT transformation project, including a project management system for Terre des Hommes NL back in 2014-15. IATI was a part of this project and we understood at that point in time that IATI was there to stay. 

First, Gyan and I worked together as separate Interim Advisors in this particular project for about two years and then we realized that we could assist many more organisations with IT and IATI in the same manner – that’s when we started a company of our own (D4D) to devote ourselves to helping organisations with IATI, data and other information management support for the non-profit sector.

Why did D4D decide to join IATI as a member?

We became a member of the IATI official governance structure in 2018 after we’d gained experience in executing IATI related work for governments, including the Department for International Development, UK (DFID now FCDO) and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The IATI secretariat is actually hosted at UNDP under the flag of the United Nations, comprising over 90 members, including governments, multilaterals, foundations, private sector and civil society organisations – all coming together to work towards this global multi-stakeholder initiative. 

A governance board with representatives from different stakeholder groups is responsible for steering the initiative in the right direction. Every year a general member’s assembly takes place where IATI policies, developments and issues are discussed. Besides this, there is a lively community of practice  (IATI Connect) with different communities, including technical community, data use community and data publishing community, where members can provide input on the ongoing debates.

Data4Development is a member of these various communities, this keeps us informed on what’s happening from the official perspective and it also provides a channel to inform our clients on all the latest policy developments and the latest discussions and vice versa. Plus, we can provide input and recommendations on where the Standard should be going and how it can be improved so it fits better for the use cases we encounter in practice.

In your opinion, how effective is the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)?

IATI provides international development professionals with a common standard for the publication of aid information and makes it easy for them to track the flow of aid. Let’s take a simple example – let’s say Oxfam Netherlands applies for funding at the European commission and once they receive it the funds get transferred to Oxfam Kenya, and Oxfam Kenya further distributes the funds to support local NGOs and local partners who would actually be the ones to work directly with target groups in a specific area. This is where IATI comes into play, it can visualize this chain of aid transfer and demonstrate how the money is distributed but also what results are reached on all levels, this helps all actors to work together towards a more sustainable development. 

A variety of tools is available for the IATI data, enabling organisations to work with data, validate data, get insights from data, see who is working where, doing what, how the money is spent and what needs to be improved. When more people use it, more people become aware of the potential of IATI to stimulate aid transparency as more people will see what’s happening where and ask questions about projects.  When more people ask questions, it helps NGOs to see whether something is wrong with the way they are publishing their information or if the information is outdated. This could provide them with an incentive to be more detailed, represent their interventions more extensively and fine-tune or enrich their data as needed.

What benefits could implementing organisations gain by complying with the IATI Standard?

To me, it’s all about aid effort coordination and aid effectiveness, the whole discussion that has been taking place within the OECD-DAC and G8 Summit, the Paris Declaration, Bhutan Declaration etc. The major donors have all agreed to share information on who is working where and with what objectives in mind, so you can actually coordinate better, avoid double financing or double implementation efforts and avoid scenarios where everybody focuses on one area where maybe the need is not the highest. 

Additionally, publishing to IATI also provides organisations access to accurate real-time data to make informed decisions. For example, during the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, people from the Red Cross used data, including IATI data to see which communities had the biggest Ebola outbreaks and which hospitals in Liberia still had beds available for patients and which ones did not – this helped the Red Cross to easily channel the patients to the right places.

So, if more and more actors active in International Development publish what they are doing on IATI, it will be easier to work together, to operate, be more effective, make data-driven decisions and avoid potential mistakes because organisations don’t always know what the counterparts are doing and in this case, IATI can be an excellent tool as a standard. Of course, people still have to fill it with data and they have to make sure the data is of good quality and it’s kept up to date.

More on the IATI Standard.

What challenges do organisations face while publishing or using IATI data?

In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges the average NGO user or publisher faces during IATI publishing is the need to engage with XML and make sure they understand the logic behind this data publishing standard and format and how to structure their data in a logical manner. The IATI standard is an XML standard, in principle XML is a very common language used for exchanging, harmonizing and visualizing data, in that sense, it is not strange that IATI is based on XML but for an average user, using IATI and publishing to IATI can be quite tricky as it is too technical. 

Oftentimes people publish to IATI, they put the XML file somewhere on the registry without knowing exactly what they are publishing about and where it’s going or how it’s being used, so in the process, the very purpose or intention behind publishing to IATI can get lost if the format is a black box to people. That is why visualising the data is so important.

Organisations can really benefit from using IATI publishing tools that are easily available and ready for use. Also, training the in-house team or hiring a specialist to work with IATI data can be helpful. NGOs can approach this as a preparation for the future where data is going to be more important than ever and where digital ways of working will be the norm in our common future.

How does publishing data to IATI help organisations with their monitoring and evaluation (M&E)?

IATI is focused on two important aspects – where does the money go and what kind of results are achieved and these two together can provide insight into what is happening in a certain thematic area or country. In IATI  the results are called the performance part and it’s directly related to M&E. 

The Standard already enables organisations to provide transparency on what kind of results they are striving to achieve and now with the combined services from TolaData and D4D, we make it possible for organisations to combine their results and project data with financial data to present a complete picture which is what organisations aim for. In that sense, the IATI publication fosters stronger M&E support within an organisation.

How can Data4Development and TolaData help organisations with IATI?

TolaData is a very user-friendly and flexible software for collaboration and M&E. It makes tracking and reporting of project results easier with tools for data collection, end-to-end indicator management support, results framework, dashboard and portfolio features. It is also very simple to set up and most organisations are easily able to adapt it to their project structure and needs. And with our recent partnership with TolaData, organisations can now extract their project results and other key information they have set up in TolaData and combine it with the financial data and use D4D’s SpreadSheet2IATI to validate and publish them to IATI, all in one platform. 

This takes away the burden of having to think about XML and all other technical requirements of IATI because TolaData already helps you to structure and organize your data and then it’s just a matter of pressing the button at the end and the information that is delivered is an IATI ready report. If organisations need further support, they can take advantage of IATI training and consultancy services provided by D4D.

So in a way, our combined services help people to engage more with activities that matter the most: achieving the outcomes and impact they aim for while becoming a part of the international transparency movement, leveraging data, tracking and reporting on their progress rather than dealing with all kinds of technical stuff that is far from their daily work.

More on how TolaData and D4D can help your organisation with IATI.

How are D4D and TolaData different from other publishing tools?

TolaData has its own strengths and so does D4D. Of course, there are other tools that offer similar benefits but what sets TolaData and D4D apart is their tools, features and support are integrated, which means organisations can set up projects, manage and track their indicators, report on their progress and actually publish those project results together with financial reports to IATI, without the need to jump back and forth between multiple platforms.

Plus, with D4D’s IATI training and consultancy support, it’s like a one-stop-shop service. Customers won’t have to sweat to get any help or information on IATI, it’s all made easily available and accessible for them as one package. Of course, it depends on the questions they have and issues they are struggling with but together we can really answer almost any question or help with any IATI related problems they face.

What improvements do you want to see in IATI data?

The IATI Standard is also like a living thing that when more people start using it you discover more room for improvements. It’s quite normal that within such a big community of publishers, you frequently have recommendations for some part to be enriched or upgraded. For example, previously it was only possible to publish quantitative results in IATI and now they have also enabled the possibility of publishing qualitative data using the Standard and that was all due to the discussion within the community. These discussions really enable the IATI support team to continuously mould the Standard in a way that it aligns with the work of different types of organisations in the field.

There is a recent discussion that is ongoing on geolocations. At present, it is possible to publish geo locations using the IATI Standard but it’s not fully optimized – this is one of the improvements I am looking forward to and it will probably be a part of the upcoming new release. It’s a bit like software, there is always going to be room for improvements, but the basic elements that IATI currently has are good to work with and it’s up to each organisation to decide whether they want to engage with certain elements or not.

What does the future look like for IATI?

Over 1200 organisations now publish their development and humanitarian spending to IATI and the number is expected to grow significantly in the upcoming years. Different countries have taken different approaches to IATI, for example, the UK, the Dutch and the Belgians have opted for obligatory publishing to IATI, meaning every organisation funded by their governments has to use IATI.

Whereas a number of other governments and donors like the Swedish government and the German government are more on the road of trying to engage people to work with IATI data by setting examples and showing some of the benefits but not yet making it compulsory and perhaps when organisations are given a choice and shown the benefits they might feel more intrinsically motivated to join the IATI movement and not just publish to IATI because they have to but also engage with the published data. We have to wait and see how these different approaches work out in practice but one thing is clear, the obligatory approach has certainly led to a high rise in IATI publishers and much more data becoming available for public use. 

There have been about 888K activities published to IATI since the very beginning and it keeps growing, so if more people start to use that richness and investigate, the advantage of using IATI and being a part of this transparency movement becomes even more evident for all kinds of stakeholders.

Do you have any special advice or tips for organisations considering publishing to IATI?

I think people should see IATI as a journey. In the beginning, It can be quite intimidating because there’s so many options, fields and components that you can potentially use, so what we always advise our clients is to start small, get some experience and see what elements work for you and your organisation and become acquainted slowly on a smaller scale, instead of thinking that they have to comply with all the possibilities at once. If you want to make it work for everything you do at once and want to engage with all the options straight from the start you sort of make it difficult on yourself and the chance is you might never start doing it. 

So, again it’s better to start small and build it up, gain experience, learn along the way and make mistakes, it’s all part of the data journey. In IATI you can always go back and correct mistakes – you can overwrite your previous dataset, make corrections and publish again. It’s a learning cycle – so just get started with it and don’t think that you need to be perfect from the start.

Lastly, could you recommend some resources for those who are interested to know more about this initiative?

We hope you found this interview with Maaike Blom helpful. In case you have additional questions for Maaike and her team, do write them in the comment section below or connect with Maaike on social media.                                      Twitter | LinkedIn | YouTube | Website 

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