USAID enhances open data toolset

The U.S. Agency for International Development's new website includes dynamic data sets and tools for technologists and software developers to increase transparency, collaboration and the impact of development.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is opening its data sets and wrapping them in an application programming interface (API) so that they can be dynamically updated on any app or software using them.

The /developer website, as USAID calls usaid.gov/developer, is the latest in a series of sites the agency set up to meet President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, which promotes transparency, participation and collaboration. The main difference between /developer and /data, which shares all of USAID’s raw data, is that the latter is updated at least quarterly while /developer is updated continuously.

 “The www.usaid.gov/developer webpage is our repository of machine-to-machine connections where you can find dynamic linkages to data that may be changing on a regular basis,” said Brandon Pustejovsky, a senior program analyst at USAID.

 “Some of this data is already available,” he added. “The missing link at this point is that dynamic connection, where people can feed that data directly into their own software application for their own innovative use.  Regardless of what kind of global development data it is, that can pop up on this site once we get that machine-to-machine connection established.”

Here’s how it works: Developers go to usaid.gov/developer and choose from any of nine data sets and APIs. With a click, they can submit an HTTP request without authentication to see the data – in JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) or XML – that they can drop into their app to create their own tool or conduct research.

“As soon as there’s a dataset available – may it be financial transactions or information on market prices for different food commodities around the world … we build this API around it, and then we make it available on this developer resource page,” said Kate Gage, adviser to the executive director, U.S. Global Development Lab.

The lab was announced April 3, and the new tool was developed as part of an agencywide commitment to open data, she added.

Those interested in studying USAID’s Development Credit Authority, for example,  could access the data set containing the complete list of the agency’s partial credit guarantees. Another available data set is the Famine Early Warning System Network’s Market Price Differential Dataset, which documents 10 years’ worth of month-to-month cereal price fluctuations in 25 African countries.

Whenever possible, the data is geolocated so that developers can create maps or other visualizations using the information, Gage said.

USAID would also like to see the information put to use to make predictions.

“Futures analysis for us means really looking at what development and global issues are going to look at in the next five, 10, 25, 50 years,” Gage said. “So we would like to hope that some of the data resources we’re making available would help people do that type of analysis.”

Feedback on the tool, data sets and APIs is not required, but users can submit suggestions to USAID’s GitHub account. The agency uses the comments to make improvements. The most common requests are for more and better access, but detailed technical requests to make different fields available come in, too, Gage said.

“It’s really important for us because those are things that we wouldn’t know would be important if it was just kept internally,” she said. “This gives us the opportunity to improve the quality of our data because we have the external community looking at it with us.”

Government agencies are increasingly opening more of their data. For instance, on April 10, NASA started offering code from more than 1,000 programs for public use. Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency opened to the public the DARPA Open Catalog, a compilation of unclassified research. In March, the Food and Drug Administration added openFDA to Data.gov, the government’s ultimate repository.

“For USAID, we have found that opening up our data to innovative thinkers, both within the agency but even more importantly to those beyond the agency to our partners in developing countries, has spurred a level of innovation and new thinking that has led to improved development outcomes,” Pustejovsky said.

“The more we can crowdsource these innovative approaches, the further along that brings us toward our goal of ending extreme poverty."

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