A bottom-up data revolution for post-2015
This post was inspired by the blog series ‘What kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?’ on post2015.org – and now cross posted there too! – http://post2015.org/2013/12/10/a-bottom-up-data-revolution-for-post-2015/
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.