USAID goes FWD with open data and open government

Today at the Social Good Summit, Dr. Raj Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) will launch a new public engagement effort to raise awareness about the devastating famine in the Horn of Africa. USAID is calling it the “FWD campaign” and it includes some interesting uses of open data, mapping and citizen engagement. USAID launched today and a text to donate initiative up and running in time to be amplified by the reach of Mashable’s Social Good Summit. You can txt “GIVE’ to 777444 to donate $10.

FWD stands for “Famine, War, Drought,” the unfortunate combination that lies behind the crisis in the Horn of Africa. “It also stands for our call to action,” writes in Haley Van Dyck, director of digital strategy at USAID, with an eye to getting people involved in raising awareness and “forwarding” the campaign on to friends, family and colleagues. Each of the components of the page includes the options to share on Twitter, Facebook or “FWD” on to people using email.

“Frankly, it’s the first foray the agency is taking into open government, open data, and citizen engagement online,” said Van Dyck. “We recognize there is a lot more to do on this front, but are happy to start moving the ball forward. This campaign is different than anything USAID has done in the past. It is based on informing, engaging, and connecting with the American people to partner with us on these dire but solvable problems. We want to change not only the way USAID communicates with the American public, but also the way we share information.”

Van Dyck was particularly excited about the interactive maps that USAID has built and embedded on the FWD site. The agency built the maps with open source mapping tools and published the data sets they used to make these maps on

The combination of publishing maps and the open data that drives them simultaneously online is significantly evolved for any government agency and will serve as a worthy bar for other efforts in the future to meet. They’ve done that by migrating their data to an open, machine-readable format. In the past, we released our data in inaccessible formats – mostly PDFs — that are often unable to be used effectively, wrote Van Dyck.

“USAID is one of the premiere data collectors in the international development space,” wrote Van Dyck. “We want to start making that data open, making that data sharable, and using that data to tell stories about the crisis and the work we are doing on the ground in an interactive way.”