Your accountant would face palm (Expenditure Analysis 101)

How old were you when you got your first bank account? Some of us started with a checkbook, maybe an ATM card to go with it. Do you remember that annoying ledger at the beginning of the book? You were supposed to carefully record each transaction you made, whether it was a deposit, or a check written, or money withdrawn — along with a little note about what prompted the transaction. You felt proud when you remembered to balance your check book, and conversely a little ashamed when you forgot.

Learning to manage personal finances takes some getting used to. Of course, some of us can now log into our bank’s online portal (or app) and see comprehensively, all in one place, our financial flows in real time. Neatly recorded for you is the starting balance at some date, all your transactions with a date and merchant, and the ending balance. (Pause for a minute at this point to thank technology for alleviating our collective guilt for poorly balanced check books!)

Of course, I recognize that a large portion of the world lacks access to basic financial services — a point not to be forgotten, but also not as relevant for this analogy, so stay with me please!

What about the age when you realized you needed personal financial goals? It was no longer enough to know how much money was in your account, but you needed to know how those bucks were being spent. Keeping track of it in your head wasn’t enough, you had to make financial goals — budgets for groceries, rent/mortgage, utilities, fun stuff, savings, etc. — and stick to them. By doing so you ensured you had food, shelter, and a cushion for the unexpected (hopefully). You ensured you and your family remained solvent and you could live your best life with the money you had.

Even those with extremely low wages and no access to formal financial services do this kind of calculus on a daily basis. Despite how much cash you have at your disposal, how you choose to spend it determines — at least partially — your fulfillment in life. As Charles Dickens’ Mr. Micawber said:


“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”.  

This is the economic concept of utility. We derive utility — or satisfaction — from trading our hard-earned resources for goods or services we can’t produce ourselves. Which goods and services we choose to buy reflects our preferences and what will ultimately maximize our personal utility. At the societal level, these principles are no different.

Hopefully, you are fortunate enough to be governed by a democratically elected authority. You have entrusted (at least tacitly) this government to raise revenue and provide certain goods and services that make more sense to be managed collectively — e.g., military and police protection, clean water, healthcare (sometimes), education (sometimes), etc. You allow your government to make decisions about what should be regulated, to ensure people are protected from undue harm, and you allow them broad authority to decide how to spend money in the collective coffers. Maybe government resources come from you directly (in the form of taxes) or maybe from benevolent sources (external donors). Either way, they partially belong to you and your community as the intended beneficiary.

If you’re with me so far, then you may agree the goal of public expenditure should be to maximize the collective utility of the people. Plain and simple.

If you think that’s reductionist — you’re right. The true picture is super convoluted. Assuming the government has the best interest of the people in mind, how does it know what they really want? How do the people know their interests are being served equitably? What about when the government is negligent or corrupt? When external donors are involved, whose utility should be included in the equation — the recipients, the donors, or both?

These are all very complicated questions with entire volumes already written to explore them. The reason I bring it up here is simple: without the right data we can’t begin to find answers to these questions or even have a productive discussion.

Let’s bring it back to the personal finances analogy. When trying to achieve your financial goals you need some key data. You need to know how much money you have now in all locations (accounts, coin jars, mattresses). You need to know what future obligations you are likely to incur for basic needs (e.g., rent) and how much discretionary funds are left over. You need targets (i.e., budgets) for how much you intend to spend in certain categories going forward (e.g., groceries). What else?

You need to know how you actually spend your resources against those budget categories in the future!! Was it more or less than intended? Did you struggle to meet the budget in a specific area? Do you need to shop for lower prices in some categories? Do you need to rethink your budgets or your goals?

For most of us, this is a no brainer. Let me be clear though: most national governments struggle to know how many resources they have on hand, rarely budget based on intended goals, and do not track actual expenditures against those goals! This is true for domestic programs and overseas assistance (looking at you OECD).

Your accountant would face palm.

Confront any government agency about this and the answer will be the same: “We meticulously track our finances in standard accounting categories.” And…this may be true. But standard accounting categories and project level accounting is archaic and not enough. If you want to achieve big goals, you need better data.

Consider, for example, the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Almost every country is signed on to targets across 17 stated goals. We know achieving the targets requires money, we know the amount of money will be different in different places, yet ask any government official to tell you how much they spent last year (on average) to test a pregnant woman for HIV or deliver a unit of clean drinking water and they will look at you perplexed.

In our above analogy, this would be the same thing as trying to set a budget for food without having been in a grocery store in 10 years to check out prices!

The next defense from officials might be, “We budgeted X, spent all the money, and achieved Y. So, we clearly know the impact of our investment.” No, no, no, no, no.

This concept will be a recurring theme of this Expenditure Analysis blog series, so please repeat it with me at your computer terminal: BUDGET DOES NOT EQUAL EXPENDITURE.

Assume you budgeted $2 per meal last month, thinking you would eat 90 meals (3 per day). You have no money left over from your paycheck at the end of the month. Can you confidently say you (1) ate 90 meals, (2) you spent $180 on food (2 x 90), and (3) that every meal was about $2? No, you can’t. Nor would you want to. All you can say with this level of information is that you spent all your money.

For example, maybe you exceeded your food budget and had to draw from other categories. Maybe in reality, the average meal was $5 because you ate out too often. Maybe the average cost per meal when cooking was $1 and when eating out was $7. Does this information matter? Of course it does, because it will correct your budget assumptions, shed light on the financial implications of different behavior, and determine how you choose to spend your money next month. Maybe you cook at home more, or decide you really like eating out and will increase your budget for food by reducing the number of taxis you take.

The point is, the trade-off is explicit because you have the right data and you are able to continually squeeze out more satisfaction from your income while remaining solvent.

Substitute “solvent” for “sustainable” in the last sentence and it could not be any more relevant to public spending. Budget does not equal expenditure, and we don’t have the right expenditure data at current to maximize the benefits of public and donor services.

What is the right expenditure data and how do you use it? Follow this blog series to find out. Next time we will explore what efforts have happened to better account for money in global health.



"America First" & Foreign Aid

At the end of a long, dusty red dirt road bordered by fields of maize sit several huts owned by Luzi Orphan Care. This community organization in rural Malawi receives around $500 a year to care for children orphaned by AIDS. Five hundred dollars go a long way here. We know this because we saw the organization’s meticulously kept records: Binders of crisp white pages, filed neatly in boxes, recording how those $500 were spent and how many orphans received care.

We asked the group if they needed anything. They didn’t request more money. Instead, they asked: “How are we doing? How does our work compare to others? Are there things we could do better?”

Luzi Orphan Care Community Organization with Tyler Smith (Cooper/Smith Co-Founder)

Luzi Orphan Care Community Organization with Tyler Smith (Cooper/Smith Co-Founder)

Their questions were instructive. For too long, foreign aid programs measured their worth based on the size of their budget, not on the results achieved. Fortunately, that is beginning to change.  Instead of using last year’s funding amounts to justify budget requests, organizations as large as the U.S. government and as small as Luzi Orphan Care are looking to accomplish more with existing resources. 

This interest in effectiveness and efficiency is being demonstrated across the foreign aid world. Increasingly, organizations are focusing on using data, evaluations (such as randomized control trials) and advanced analytics to measure results and demonstrate value for money.  And they are deploying the power of technology to pinpoint where development interventions are needed.

This revolution arrives just in time.  With the Trump Administration’s proposed budget portending fewer resources for foreign assistance, providers must accomplish as much as possible with available resources.  In addition, better data about what well-run programs can accomplish, will help persuade the public that foreign assistance is a wise investment.

Donor governments and aid organizations should take three basic steps to generate that data:

First, every aid program should be accompanied by a rigorous framework to assess whether it achieves its goals. Backward-looking evaluations after a project’s conclusion are not enough; at that point, the donor has a powerful vested interest in ensuring that the project is deemed a success. Under those circumstances, without a pre-determined baseline against which to measure the results, a passing grade is virtually guaranteed.  That kind of evaluation tells us little about whether the project achieved its intended goals or delivered good value for money.

There is a better way.  Instead, before the project begins, donors and implementers should agree on the metrics, or “indicators,” they will use to measure the project’s effects.  The next step is to gather baseline data for those indicators and set clear targets for project success.  With baseline data and pre-determined indicators and targets, donors and implementers can rigorously measure what a project achieved.  

Second, development professionals need to collect the right data—and sometimes that means collecting fewer indicators. One of the downsides of the drive to show aid effectiveness is that both donors and implementers have become overwhelmed with indicators.

For example, in a recent study in Malawi, we found that health workers collect more than 3,500 different HIV-related data elements. This means that staff at already-overburdened health facilities spend, on average, several days each month filling out reports. This takes time away from patient care and leaves little time to use the data to improve the clinic’s services.

Data collection at a health facility in Malawi

Data collection at a health facility in Malawi

One way to reduce this burden is for donors to better coordinate the indicators they ask governments and organizations to collect.  An African health system supported by five separate donors should not have to collect five slightly different datasets to respond to each donor’s requirements.

Third, donors must analyze and use these data to better tie resources to results. Some implementing partners provide great value for money; others do not.  For example, in countries receiving support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), we found that the unit expenditure to deliver HIV treatment varied substantially.  Fortunately, a relatively new technique called Expenditure Analysis allows PEPFAR to explore why it costs more or less for different organizations to deliver similar results. Sometimes there is a straightforward reason for the higher cost: the work takes place in a remote area, labor costs are higher, and so forth. Sometimes it is a warning sign that something is amiss. This information allows planners to identify best practices that can be replicated elsewhere.

Today, the political winds are blowing against foreign aid.  In this challenging climate, donors, implementers, and advocates should continue to mount a principled defense of foreign assistance. But pushing back against budget cuts is not enough: Like Luzi Orphan Care, we should strive to do better with the resources we already have.

Hannah Cooper and Tyler Smith are co-founders of Cooper/Smith, a DC-based startup that uses data to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of development programs.  They previously served in the State Department’s Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator.


Why is data important? Because it makes people count.


Why is data important? Because it makes people count.

While I was at a facility in Lilongwe this week, piloting a study about data use for the Kuunika project, I was inspired to create a little photo essay. I asked some of the facility staff a very simple question: “Why is data important?”

Each person’s eyes lit up when I asked them this question. Having just participated in the pilot for our survey, they were very engaged and really wanted to discuss the importance of data and how to improve data systems.  

So, I wrote down the first thing they said in response to my question and asked them to hold it up for a photo:

Facility staff in Lilongwe holding up why they think data is important. Staff include nurses, clinical associates, data clerks, health surveillance assistants, and our data collection staff.

Facility staff in Lilongwe holding up why they think data is important. Staff include nurses, clinical associates, data clerks, health surveillance assistants, and our data collection staff.

Although I’m typically sitting in a room full of people who all care deeply about data, getting to why they care can be more complex and nuanced than you might think.  I’ve worked in global health for several years now and have been focused on data systems, but I’m guilty of taking this basic question for granted.  So, this also got me thinking about the question. Why do I think data is important?

For me, data is important because it makes people count.

It makes the patients who come to the facility and are entered into the register or electronic medical record system count. It makes the work of the healthcare workers count. They spend hours caring for patients and tallying the numbers of patients they’ve seen. The tally sheets are sent to decision-makers who are challenged with figuring out how to treat large numbers of people in an equitable way despite resource constraints. It makes the decision makers at the district, national, and international levels accountable to the people whose lives they are trying to make better, people who might otherwise not be counted.

Data is important because it represents people who are important. At the end of the day, behind those numbers are people that matter. People who come to the health care clinic for services that they desperately need to stay alive. These people are important, and that is why data is important.

-- Andrea




Why Open Data Isn't Changing the World - Yet


Why Open Data Isn't Changing the World - Yet

Admittedly, I was a little late to jump on the podcast bandwagon. It took NPR’s Serial to get me on board, but now I can’t get enough. As a visual learner, I also didn’t think listening to people talk about data and data science would be that interesting…man, was I wrong.

Today I tuned into what is quickly becoming a favorite: The Digital Analytics Power Hour (highly recommend). The topic was “open data,” something we pay a lot of lip service to in international development programs but never seems quite well-executed. “Open data” simply means  publically sharing information you collect and store, and there’s a huge push now to get governments to open up information like never before (partially thanks to our friends over at Development Gateway). Though important, the power of open data can really be felt when everyone—from a PhD student to a frontline global NGO worker—knows how to use it.

The guests of the podcast, Jon Loyens and Brett Hurt (veterans of several data-driven, private sector companies), flagged some concepts that resonated and got me thinking about some of the major issues with fully unlocking the potential of data for development.

Issue #1: “Data is tribal”

Jon Loyens’ use of this phrase struck me because it accurately describes how often information about development data stays within small groups. Even if some data see the light of day, few people know what to do with it because they don’t understand what it is.

For example, in Malawi health facility data collection happens all the time. Health workers are surveyed, facilities are assessed, staff is monitored, and health outputs are tracked and uploaded to repositories, but each of these activities is administered by different groups with different goals. If demographic information is collected (e.g. “education”), the responses will vary and standards for how these data are captured don’t exist. Some responses might be “secondary” while others say “MSCE.”  Are these the same or mutually exclusive? Ultimately, when looking through results reports or data files (if available), there is little to no documentation of what criteria are set to determine these categories, so comparability is limited.

The same is true for health facility names. In one dataset a site might be named “Monkey Bay District Hospital” and in another, “Monkey Bay Hospital.” Are these the same site? The only way you could know for sure is to ask the group who collected it.

Knowledge about the data—the context, definition, how to interpret—stays within the “tribe” that collected it. This phenomenon doesn’t happen because people don’t want to be collaborative. I think it happens because developing adequate documentation is super time consuming and no one forces organizations to do it. According to the podcast guests (and I agree), 80% of analytics is janitorial. Not fun, but necessary.

Once the study is over, the report is written, and the funding has dried up, the data are filed away to collect dust in the silo. Meanwhile, in the silo next door, another organization is creating their own data collection tool from scratch with similar, but slightly different, categories.

Imagine a world where all the information collected at the site level in Malawi over the past decade suddenly has the same linked “key,” like an official site ID, and you could compare vast data from multiple sectors over time for a single site.  <sheds tear>

Note: I’m certainly not picking on Malawi. This a massive problem in every country and sector. It just happens to be what’s fresh on my mind.  Malawi is currently developing a nation-wide site registry that will link all sites with a common ID, so kudos to them on that front.

Issue #2: “People won’t understand the nuance”

Exceptionalism. <big sigh>  

I put issue #2 in quotes because, unfortunately, I said it in the past. When I worked for PEPFAR, we created a data stream that generates massive amounts of information on US government expenditures linked to program outputs (e.g. expenditure per person tested for HIV). It covers 58 countries, geographic regions within countries, thousands of implementing partners, tons of indicators.  The short story is, it’s a big and detailed dataset with many dimensions and provocative information. Once we had the data we used it extensively within PEPFAR, but refused to release the contents publically. Our justification? “It’s incredibly nuanced and there is potential for people to misuse it.”

I certainly get why this is a problem—I tend to be more of sharer than a keeper—but there was a real fear at the time that these data could damage perceptions of the program or reputations of our partners. Not because there was evidence of any glaring malfeasance, but because it shed light on areas where PEPFAR really needed to do better with the money available. 

Our mistake in the above example came from a generally good, if not misguided, motivation: a fear that can be ameliorated with better documentation and tools. There are, however, more shady situations where failure to share information is due to a fear that people find evidence of fraud or information mishandling.

In either case, “nuance” is not a valid excuse to keep data locked up tight. On the contrary, choosing not to share information that could be better used by someone else to improve development programs should be viewed as potentially damaging and a challenge to progress.

Issue #3: Data Quality

Though “misuse” can be invoked as a justification for sharing data, “data quality” is by far the most ubiquitous. This warrants a whole discussion on its own, which I won’t get into here. I will just say 3 things:

  1. People are generally nervous about how more information about their activities will impact them, which causes them to recoil at the notion of open data
  2. This fear is compounded when financial information is involved
  3. “All decisions are made on the basis of incomplete data, so either learn to live with this fact or get out of the game.” – Robert Townsend

Issue #4: We don’t understand the power of the semantic web

The semantic web is basically a concept and set of tools for better data documentation and standards that enhance congruency of data sources across the web. Seems basic, but we can’t even fathom the power this unsexy and unglamorous work unlocks.

Data janitorial work—data hygiene as I call it—has the power to democratize big data. We don’t all need to be data scientists to enjoy the insights better linked data will produce. We just need to line things up more effectively and let some amazing learning tools and bright minds step in.

As Brett Hurt states in the podcast, “The NSA gets it. Palantir gets it.  Facebook, Google, they get it.” But the rest of us aren’t there yet. Further, we can’t expect machines to really make our lives easier until we make it easier for machines to understand our data.

For this to work, the development community has to rally around data hygiene as a first principle and actually mean it. Then we have to get over our hesitance to share our work, warts and all.

I look forward to the day when data is communal, instead of tribal. 

- Tyler Smith



Put your data where your decisions are! A systematic analysis

We’re gearing up to launch the Kuunika: Data for Action project in Malawi. To date, we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of Malawi’s finest across government, private, and not-for-profit sectors.

As we work on the project’s implementation plan, a gap in the landscape became clear.  Kuunika’s overall goal is to increase access to and use of high-quality health data at multiple levels. However, given the vast array of actors, skillsets, and data systems, where do we start?  We want the project to target those users, systems, and activities we expect will have the greatest return on investment for improving HIV outcomes.  As such, we realized we need better information on what critical decisions are made that lead to HIV program outputs and outcomes.  In particular:  Who are the decision-makers and what do we know about them?  What HIV-related data is being used for decision making and where does it reside?  What information is missing? 

We could answer these questions anecdotally, but didn’t understand the full picture. 

It turns out, little has been done (or written about) to systematically document the critical decisions at various levels of the health system and indicate how users, data, and systems interact to produce action.  If our goal is for clinicians and policy makers to make more informed decisions using empirical data (which it should be), we need a better way of cataloguing the decisions and events where the right data need to be at the right users’ fingertips.

Cooper/Smith is helping to answer these questions in the Malawi context. We undertook a rapid-fire study: Strengthening Routine Use of Information to Improve HIV and Health Outcomes in Malawi: Systematic analysis of key data users and decision points.  We know, it’s mouthful, so we will refer to it going forward as the Data Users Study.  Our objectives were twofold:

  1. Systematically document, relate, and validate assumptions for key data elements (indicators), users, and systems that manage Malawi’s HIV response
  2. Identify the critical decisions/events encountered by decision-makers and the information used or needed to improve HIV program effectiveness

It took a couple of months from conception to execution to obtain the data needed from communities, service facilities, districts, and central offices.  We collected information from a wide array of actors, coded/analyzed responses, and extracted some initial gems to inform Kuunika implementation design.

For example, study respondents identified a total of 335 unique decisions typically made in their job functions.  We grouped these into 85 common categories.  Of those 85, the top 5 categories accounted for over 40% of all decisions identified.  These categories included drug supply, treatment initiation, defaulter follow-up, program performance and referrals. If we want to maximize return on investments in health information systems in Malawi, we should prioritize based on which decisions occur most frequently, which data are most valued, and which systems can/should be linked to efficiently produce this information when needed.

Please take a moment to look through the initial findings from the study.  We will continue to add to this analysis over time. We are also working on a Phase 2 of the study, which will examine health worker preferences for different incentives associated with promoting data use. 

As always, we love to talk about data!  Please share any thoughts or comments below or email us. 



The Evidence Heat Map on Data Use is Now available!

Which interventions are effective in stimulating health sector data use?  This is a question we've been asking for quite some time as we gear up the Kuunika Project: Data for Action in Malawi.  Turns out, there's not a great deal of evidence on data use and incentives, especially related to increasing access to information, capacity for analysis, and data-driven decisions.  

With a global push towards an information revolution in health, program planners need to create the value proposition for health workers to focus more on data.  Frontline workers have to see better use of data as a way to save time and improve quality of care.  Health managers need to see how applying routine data can increase program output and cost-effectiveness of limited budgets.  Choosing interventions for promoting data use must be aligned to both personal and program incentives if they are to be effective, as well as tailored to the target groups and context. 

In the lead up to the project design in Malawi, we completed a rapid lit review to catalogue evidence available on data use and incentive programs.  Realizing that others may be grappling with the same question, we assembled this review into a database and dashboard for easy access and navigation. This list is by no means exhaustive, but we are hoping this will be a good start and help promote collaboration and sharing of ideas for those working in health data. 

We hope this tool can be expanded and look to you to fill in any observed gaps.  Eventually, this may prove to be a useful platform for coordinating projects within countries and regions, sharing lessons learned, and discussing common challenges.  Please let us know what you think in the comments section.  If you have any requested additions to the evidence base or feedback on the design, please contact us

Special thanks to Roberta Makoko, Megan Wolfe, and Sara Walker for their contribution to the lit review and our own Andrea Fletcher for building such a sleek dashboard.  

Check it out!