What are the benefits of sharing grant data openly?

Marta Poblet and Amir Aryani talk about the importance of open sharing of grant data – a topic not often brought into the OA debate

Contacts on twitter: @mpoblet @amir_at_ands

Every year, the Australian Commonwealth and the State governments spend billions of dollars in grants to individuals, small business, communities, not-for-profits, universities, corporations, etc. Philanthropy organisations, nearly 5,000 in Australia, are giving approximately an extra billion dollars in grants.

Yet, to date the total, combined value of grants from the Commonwealth, the States, and the philanthropy sector can only be estimated. In 2014, the Australian National Audit Office noted that “the precise number and value of grants made by the Commonwealth Government in any one year is difficult to establish as details are contained in individual entity documents”. It also warned that  “the Commonwealth may be providing very significant subsidies for particular services or outcomes without a good understanding of the level of subsidy provided and consequently value for money”.

Monies from government, philanthropy, and corporate grants fuel research, innovation, and social change, but duplication, over or underinvestment are likely outcomes of a system that keeps confining grant data into organisational silos. Opening up access to grant information across the whole sector would certainly help maximise its efficiency and social impact.

Every year, public and private grant programs generate large volumes of data throughout the different stages of the grantmaking cycle (from publication of the call to final assessment). This grant data should not be considered as a mere by-product of the process. In addition to its organisational value, grant data can also contribute to a common good: linking grant data to recipients, and outputs (including publications, if available) improves the discoverability of the programs and increases the transparency of the overall system.

In Australia, the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) sees the value in connecting grants with grant outputs like data and publications, so the ANDS data discovery service includes open research grant data. The service currently includes grant data from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the Australian Research Council (ARC) Some of these data are also linked to project outputs such as datasets and publications.

But discoverability and transparency are not the only benefits of open grant data. As Rachel Wharton from NPC puts it, “accurate and timely data allows funders to learn quickly about a strategy or area in which they are interested. It encourages them to think strategically about their giving and to communicate and collaborate with others in the sector.”

When it comes to philanthropy grants, there is a growing number of international initiatives embracing openness. Examples are the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), Glasspockets and Washfunders by the Foundation Center, PoweredbyData or the recently released GrantNav by the 360 Giving initiative in the UK. This initiative has also developed a data standard which is compatible with the IATI standard and the Foundation Center hGrant standard. More innovations in the philanthropy sector can be found in this report.

Generally, the barriers to creating a comprehensive open framework linking grantmakers with grant programs, grantees, and grant outputs (including publications) are a combination of technical and legal challenges.

A technical challenge, for instance, is how to connect grantmakers and grantees. Researchers in academia are increasingly using author identifiers, unique numbers identifying them so that their names are properly linked to their publications and/or grants. ORCID, ISNI, or ResearchID are the most widely adopted identifiers. This technology could be extended to all types of grants to disambiguate the names of both grantmakers and grantees.

Likewise, an open grant data framework needs to connect grant programs with the outputs produced with those grants. When these outputs are academic publications, platforms such as FundRef or OpenAIRE enable to link who funded what to whom, but the lack of unique and persistent identifiers for grants hinders significantly the visibility of such programs.

The technical barriers need to be addressed hand in hand with the legal and ethical issues associated with openly releasing grant data. Privacy, data protection, and confidentiality principles and rules need to be carefully weighed to protect all stakeholders from potential threat or harm. Intellectual property and licensing issues will also emerge through the process. A balanced approach needs to be translated into appropriate policies, guidelines and procedures to help building a trusted process to share grant data for the public interest.

About the authors

Marta Poblet is a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Researcher at RMIT University (Graduate School of Business and Law) @mpoblet

Amir Aryani is a project manager in Australian National Data Service and technology lead for the Research Data Switchboard (RD-Switchboard.org) @amir_at_ands

They declare no conflicts of interest