Development Data Challenge

This past weekend, I went to the Development Data Challenge at The Guardian.

The two-day event is organised by the International Aid Transparency Initiative, an organisation which strives for data concerning global development to be made public, as quickly and as easily as possible. In recent years, more and more of this development data has been made available, so the idea of the weekend was to interrogate it to answer questions about global development, and then present findings in interesting ways.

Now, I’m not an international development expert, nor can I do fancy things with HTML or coding… but I have a decent interest in both areas so I thought I might as well go along (the event was free!) and if anything, it would be a fantastic opportunity to network.

In the weeks leading up to the event, people submitted questions they wanted to be answered. These ranged from; “What is the average salary of an ex-pat aid worker compared to that of a local aid worker?” and “How much aid money is lost in admin processes?” to “How reliable is this data?” There were about 70 questions in total so our first task was to whittle these down to a select few ‘interesting questions’, and then choose the ones we thought we could tackle in groups, with the data we knew (or other people knew) was available.

During this discussion, one of the attendees brought up the question of the extent of media influence on aid donations after natural disasters. Does more news coverage increase donations? Or does the fact that more people are donating money increase news coverage? OR, are there other factors involved, such as the number of people affected by the disaster?

Now, I touched on this age-old question during my MA programme, and I know studies have been done to assess the quantity and quality of press coverage of natural disasters. There is even a theory about it. But how does this affect aid donations? And what about when we’re talking about broadcast news? Those are questions I want to answer.

It took my group (which grew steadily across the weekend) quite a while to work out just how we were going to answer this question, where we were going to find the information and how we were going to include everything we wanted to, without overwhelming ourselves. In the end, we decided to cover five big natural disasters of the last ten years: the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2010 Pakistan Floods, the 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami, and the 2011 East Africa Drought.

[We also wanted to include Hurricane Katrina, but as yet we have still not been able to find any data about aid donations…]

The techy guys tapped into YouTube and set up a search filter thingy for the official channels of 31 different reputable news organisations. Then came the tricky part; finding comparable data on the amount of aid donations for each disaster and working out the total number of people affected by each disaster. This took a huge chunk of our time and I can’t even remember the processes we went through, but eventually, we found the financial data through the Financial Tracking Service and relied on official reports from aid organisations, such as the Red Cross, for the total number of people affected.

The techy guys got to work again, doing things with HTML and code and lots of other things which are way over my head, and came up with this

[NB: The x axis is news coverage in minutes, the y axis is total amount of funding and the green bubbles are the total number of people affected.]

For me, this exercise confirmed some things while disproving others. I thought that the more a natural disaster was televised, the more money would be donated, regardless of the number of people affected, and vice versa. The Pakistan Floods case study proved this, but the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami did not. Then again, the Japanese government were telling people not to give them any money…

And there are so many other factors that contribute to why media organisations cover what they do — look at the Galtung & Ruge theory — and why people donate to some causes and not to others — read Susan D. Moeller.

Most importantly though, I think my group really started something and other groups at future hack days can continue with our work and improve and expand on it. I’m really glad we have something to show for our hard work (at around 3pm on Sunday when we were still trying to find financial data, it looked like we might not have anything to present!) and as I thought, I had many an interesting conversation and met some fascinating people.


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