KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

A bottom-up data revolution for post-2015

with 6 comments

This post was inspired by the blog series ‘What kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?’ on  – and now cross posted there too! –

The High Level Panel’s report on the post-2015 development agenda called for a “data revolution”. It’s already clear from this set of blog posts that there is both a strong enthusiasm about the new possibilities of data analysis to support the implementation and monitoring of a new development agenda, but also a wide range of interpretations of what this means, who will be the principal actors and who will benefit.

Often the benefit is seen in terms of having access to better statistics, real-time monitoring and feedback, big data analysis and open transparent data on aid and government spending. These provide a treasure trove of data to support better monitoring and evaluation of development interventions so that aid agencies can design better programmes and donors can allocate resources more efficiently and researchers can better test out their development theories.

But I’d argue that the most significant and also most challenging part of the data revolution will come from the bottom up. While aid transparency can help with accountability to funders or even to partner governments, the really interesting area where improved accountability is needed is with respect to those who the aid is intended to help.

One promising area is in soliciting feedback and ideas for development projects directly from the communities where they are implemented. Both new technologies (such as SMS or online surveys) and old technologies (public opinion polls, paper questionnaires, interviews) can be used to help collect information on both the preferences of project beneficiaries and their levels of satisfaction with the services they are being provided. This is helpful both as a means of improving programme design to make it more effective, but also conferring the important right of giving the poor a voice (“nothing about us without us”). See “listening to the people we work for” for more on this idea.

But people don’t always tell you what they really want or really think. Sometimes you also have to observe them and see how they act, or even try to “walk a mile in their shoes” to better understand the lives they lead, the challenges they face, the choices they make and why they make them. Ethnographic studies have been with the development world for a long time, and the notion of “human centred design” is also not new, but a data revolution can help expand the use of these techniques and make them easier to do and more cost-effective. Use of “big data” to observe behaviour patterns such as use of mobile phones, transport or health services can help us understand much more about how people are really making choices. Similarly use of remote sensing devices, hand-held cameras and recorders and other tools can help scale up ethnographic research and participatory evaluation, including giving individuals and communities the tools and skills to “document themselves” and share their own stories.

But an even stronger step that is still in its early stages is to empower citizens in developing countries not only to be able to express their views or share their lives, but to provide them with the tools and skills to take advantage of the data revolution themselves. At a simple level this can mean helping them have access to and the skills to make use of  the data they need to make individual decisions (such as choosing between schools or health centres or make healthy nutrition choices). But a more ambitious goal would be to help them develop the skills they need to be able to mobilize an advocate for their own interests making use of the data that is out there (and often about them) rather than relying on the goodwill and decisions from others with stronger technical skills and better financial resources to invest in using data.

Here the open data revolution is a good starting point to empower citizens, but in reality most citizens, especially those in developing countries lack the capacity to make effective use of this data. Instead open data may create a new “digital divide” between those who have the ability to collect and analyze the new data and those who don’t with rich word governments, academia and private enterprise being the main beneficiaries of these new data sources while those we are trying to help are being left behind.

In the end, if we really want to realize the promise of the data revolution, and use this to bring about sustainable change, then we need to think from the bottom up rather than the top down. How can we develop the capacities of the communities we seek to serve, including the most disadvantaged, so that they can participate fully in the new data revolution and be leading their own development rather than relying on the goodwill and analytical capacities of others.


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 10, 2013 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian,

    Nice post. It’s an important point that citizens at the grassroots level need to be more involved in the data revolution. There are some good examples of this happening. SEND-Ghana, with which I’m working at the moment, empowers citizens at the district level to monitor the implementation of government programmes. The monitoring is carried out by grassroots level citizens using tablets and the data is instantly transferred to the organisation’s HQ where it is analysed. The findings are then published in reports that are used for advocacy at the district and national level. Just thought I’d highlight that for anyone that is interested!

    But there are some really interesting questions around the so called ‘data revolution’. Can it produce meaningful data without grassroots participation in the design of research instruments? And if the research instruments are localised and context-specific how difficult will it be to disaggregate data to compare it meaningfully at different scales? …questions I don’t know the answer to.

    Anyway, thanks! A few things to mull over 🙂


    December 10, 2013 at 11:08 am

  2. Great post, Ian. While I agree with the sentiment, I think we need to talk less about “top-down” versus “bottom up” being in opposition, and more about linking the successful work at both ends together. Information provided by aid donors can be an important tool for citizens to hold local institutions to account – but of course it’s not the only information they need, nor the only tool.

    Dr David Hall-Matthews

    December 10, 2013 at 11:55 am

  3. Always love to read and share your blogs. Big data—for open development, open government, open data, open Aid, for so many “Open…” things. I do agree with you Ian that citizens should be above and all the beneficiaries of any outcomes from the big data revolution—citizen voices must be heard! I see that big data revolution and access to information/data for better citizen engagement for open government, open development.

    Tamirat Yacob

    December 11, 2013 at 2:42 am

  4. Agree with you, Ian. Just releasing data, without mechanisms for ensuring quality, preservation, usage, and uptake as information is not enough. For this reason we are stressing the importance of intermediaries and public venues to help people access tools and training to make use of data and information. Access to Information Central to the Post-2015 Development Agenda

    Fiona Bradley

    December 11, 2013 at 9:35 am

  5. […] Continued here: A bottom-up data revolution for post-2015 […]

  6. Ian, super timely post. In my view, the real question is how do we shift from project or agency based initiatives on teaching people how to use data for better decision making, collecting data in better ways, influencing political discussions through analysis of online discussions on different topics to integrating this thinking in standard project life cycles. Very concretely- our Post 2015 team and My World team are doing some incredible work on analyzing on line data and understanding whether similar issues remain salient across different modes of discussions (eg. townhall meetings vs SMS campaign vs twitter). In my view, the real question is whether there will be enough political maturity to integrate mechanisms of this type into real-time monitoring of SDGs and post 2015 agenda… without this type of a result, i fear that many of fantastic though still fragmented efforts will not have the impact we want them to have.


    December 14, 2013 at 5:37 am

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