Interview: Centre for Humanitarian Data on their COVID-19 Dashboard

  • March 10, 2022

We interviewed Steven Flower, IATI Technical Specialist at the Centre for Humanitarian Data on their Covid-19 Dashboard.

What data can be found on the IATI COVID-19 Funding Dashboard?

The dashboard provides data and visualisations around the financial commitments and spending made in relation to COVID-19. It displays the figures as aggregates and with breakdowns by country, sector and publisher, and also in terms of trends-over-time and specific flows between organisations.

We use data from any IATI publisher that follows the IATI COVID-19 guidelines. The dashboard automatically updates every night, meaning that if an organisation adds or annotates their IATI data with COVID-19 information, then it will be included without the need to tell us!

Can you tell us a bit more about the Data Story section of the Dashboard?

We wanted to reach a wider audience through a visual story that highlighted specific insights from the data. This includes charting the response to the pandemic from IATI publishers, the distribution gap between money committed and money spent, and the different sectors targeted for COVID-19 funding. We hope the data story can be a starting point for people who may not be familiar with IATI.

Why did the Centre decide to create this Dashboard and why did you exclusively use IATI data?

An initial prototype of the dashboard was created in May 2020 at the request of the Grand Bargain Transparency Workstream. The work was undertaken by Development Initiatives, and in particular by Mark Brough. With the support and encouragement of USAID, we sought to make improvements to the usability of the tool and also in how the data was assessed and processed.

During our user research phase, we found that people would get confused between IATI and FTS. We therefore decided to just use IATI data to ensure there was a single focus. This also helped us target our report and recommendations towards improving IATI.

Where did you access IATI data from? How did you decide on what methodology to use when processing the data?

A great thing about IATI data is that it is published over many years, and offers granularity. Even though we launched the dashboard publicly in October 2021, the actual data spanned back to the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, giving us scope to look at changes over time.

We accessed the IATI data from, specifically the excellent d-query backend. This saved us resources in terms of collating and storing all the IATI data. Without this, we would have spent a lot of time building unnecessary and duplicate infrastructure.

Our methodology centred on what we do with IATI data once we receive it from the d-query service. We were mainly interested in the financial aspects of IATI data, so we spent a lot of time analysing these. As a team, we did a lot of learning, particularly those who were new to the world of IATI. We wanted to make sure that we treated the data in a fair, consistent and clear manner.

Have you received feedback on the use cases of this data? What interests its users?

We certainly know that getting headline insights into the data is very important to people. There’s great enthusiasm to be able to share the information that IATI data can generate with other colleagues, particularly around trends over time and funding flows between organisations.

We also know that the dashboard serves as a useful data quality checkpoint for IATI organisations. By seeing how the data shows up in the dashboard, using our methodology, it is possible to spot inconsistencies, errors or anomalies. We heard that the ability to quickly compare data with other organisations also helps this use case.

Has anything changed since the dashboard was launched?

Yes! One day in November we noticed a huge spike in the data to the extent that it nearly broke things! We checked the IATI data and found that one publisher had added COVID-19 to most of their activity descriptions. This was because the response to COVID-19 had become part of their main results framework.

Hence, we felt that the use of just the activity description to signify something as COVID-19 related was no longer warranted. We adjusted our methodology, and continue to monitor things.

The Centre has published a report on its experience of using IATI COVID-19 Data. Can you share its top findings?

It was extremely useful to use IATI data that was specifically focused on COVID-19, but we found wider themes that would apply regardless. Here are a few takeaways:

  • There is a high barrier to entry in terms of using IATI data. This ranges from access to the data to how complex and inconsistent publishers can be. It takes effort and resources to use IATI data.
  • There are not enough feedback loops for how IATI data is being published and used.
  • Publishers are mainly focused on their own data. While this is understandable, increased data use between organisations could lead to beneficial collaboration, and in many ways, this is the point of having a shared standard.
  • The IATI standard can be too rigid at times.

You have identified a number of recommendations for IATI in the report. Which ones would you like to highlight/those that need to be prioritised?

There are three top-level recommendations for how IATI can bridge the gap to an ambitious next level:

  • User-led governance needs to be investigated and instilled. There is a wealth of interest and engagement in the information that IATI data can communicate, yet the initiative lacks a way to integrate user feedback.
  • Guidance and documentation needs to be centred on use cases and give practical examples.
  • Any attempts to rank data quality should take into account how an organisation illustrates collective and systematic data use.

We hope our report can be useful to relevant stakeholders. We look forward to working with the IATI community to make improvements to the standard and guidance so users can easily glean insight, leading to faster decision-making.

Can the Centre’s work on the IATI COVID-19 Funding Dashboard be replicated for another crisis or humanitarian topic?

Yes, the methodology is crisis agnostic, and therefore can be deployed for other topics. We are testing this with a few other queries to understand the results and to see if our recommendations hold true for other types of IATI data.

Please share any further information about this project or future work that the Centre has planned in working with IATI data.

We plan to stay engaged with the IATI community and hope our recommendations get some traction with those governing the standard. The Centre publishes IATI data about its own activities, and also helps to make IATI aid activity data available on the Humanitarian Data Exchange. We are also supporting OCHA’s Donor Relations team to improve its IATI reporting.

For more information, watch Steven Flower, the Centre’s IATI Specialist, presenting Lessons Learnt Tracking COVID-19 IATI data at IATI’s Virtual Community Exchange (12-13 October 2021).

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