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Harnessing development’s information shadow

In a previous post, I introduced the concept of development’s information shadow (mediated from Tim O’Reilly), arguing that the development world will gradually produce an increasing amount of digital data with a relationship to real world objects (think, for example, of a digital map of safe drinking water sources in a given location). This will shed new light on different aspects of the reality of development work (particularly in the field) -- a reality for which we currently have no effective narrative, providing an opportunity to rewrite the script for aid.

A recent prototype initiative of AidData, the Development Gateway, and the World Bank to geocode the Bank’s projects at the subnational (rather than the national) level is meant to showcase the potential of enhancing development’s information shadow (hopefully, there are techies out there who will be inspired!).* All of a sudden, thanks to the increased level of granularity of geospatial data, a whole new narrative is emerging that will allow us to account for regional differences in, say, the impact of education projects between capital cities and rural areas (more in a blog post and video on Owen Barder’s blog). What used to be a bird’s eye view of development work at the national level, thanks to the magnifying lens of geodata, will now turn into a more nuanced account taking into account regional variations.

Couple this with digital photos or live digital streams from the actual project locations and you have a Photosynth-style view of development work that will hopefully pave the way for more effective interventions and, possibly, help address the micro-macro paradox. More effective coordination between donors could also result if the increased information shadow exposes the risk of concentrating all aid efforts in the same locations. One can only hope that the proposal currently being discussed in the context of the International Aid Transparency Initiative to include standards for geocoding of all aid activities will be swiftly adopted.

If a rather straightforward action like geocoding all aid projects has this much potential for improving efforts on the ground, one is left to wonder about the untapped potential of enhancing development’s information shadow. Where should we focus our documenting and digitisation efforts to maximize impact? Wouldn’t the information shadow be an interesting topic for an international donor conference? And, for the private-sector minded people out there, isn’t this a promising area to develop services geared to the aid sector?

(*Please note that the original version of this post pointed incorrectly to Aidinfo rather than AidData. Apologies for the error.)


Submitted by Paul Cadario on
Geocoding is a fine idea, but much of what donors finance these days does not have a physical location, or even a physical presence. It is spent on policy-based lending and budget support. Surely we should be moving toward a 'whole government' approach, and not just focus on what donors fund. It's a small part of the whole 'spend', and climate finance will introduce a whole new set of conceptual and practical issues about coding what's been paid for.

Submitted by C Raleigh on
The World Bank has been great at funding new disaggregated and geo-referenced data projects. For example, a comprehensive conflict database has been completed recently with major help from the WB research unit. Please see information about the ACLED project at:

Submitted by Lola on
Very interesting, please, how can geocoding be applied in Nigeria, Sudan and Afghanistan?

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