Talking ’bout a (data) revolution? Then let’s make it truly revolutionary

A version of this post was published on post2015.org, in their blog series, ‘What kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?’

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Don’t you know, they’re talking ’bout a revolution, sounds like a whisper;
Finally the tables are starting to turn, talking ’bout a revolution

Tracy Chapman

“We call for a data revolution,” said the report of the high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, “with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens. We should actively take advantage of new technology, crowd sourcing, and improved connectivity to empower people with information on the progress towards the targets.”

As someone who works in the field of data and development, I find this idea exciting. But there seem to be a couple of problems with how it is being interpreted.

First, a revolution, by definition, should represent a radical shift in power, but amid the competing views on what the revolution should look like, there seems to be a danger that this point might get forgotten.

Statisticians, data scientists and development policy wonks alike have jumped on the data revolution idea with delight. The stats bofins see it as an opportunity to get the funding that’s needed to make sure national statistics offices can do their jobs properly. The policy wonks see it as a chance to get more reliable data with which to compare progress in Malawi and Malaysia, say. And the tech and data gurus are looking for recognition for a wider range of data sources, beyond household surveys.

But let me put these points another way: they are all about giving powerful people in Washington, London and Geneva (etc.) even more access to more and better data on development progress.

This was what I heard at a meeting I attended at the end of January, on data and accountability for the post-2015 development framework. I found it to be disappointingly unambitious.

Don’t get me wrong, more and better data, better monitoring of global commitments and better-informed policy debates are all valid goals. But can’t we be more radical, more ambitious, more revolutionary?

Look again at the first sentence of this post – the clue is in the final word. Let’s improve the quality and availability of data to citizens. It’s about changing the relationship between governments and their citizens. (Or rather between citizens and their governments.) That has the potential to be far more transformative, even emancipatory.

In one sense the real potential of the data revolution idea comes when it’s combined with another interesting proposal in the same report:

“Responsive and legitimate institutions should encourage the rule of law, property rights, freedom of speech and the media, open political choice, access to justice, and accountable government and public institutions. We need a transparency revolution, so citizens can see exactly where and how taxes, aid and revenues from extractive industries are spent. These are ends as well as means.”

Did you spot that word again: revolution? Blend these two revolutions together – data and transparency – with a generous dash of political freedoms, and we’re really starting to get somewhere.

It’s when data goes beyond mere reporting on poor people’s lives, and starts to provide those people with the data and information to shape change for themselves that it starts to get interesting. And that means something quite different to the way the data revolution idea was being discussed in New York.

It also brings me to my second issue. There’s another mistake we could easily make, particularly those of us who see the data revolution as an opportunity to put citizens in the driving seat: the potential of data to empower citizens is clear, but we need to be realistic about how this can be achieved. Publish-and-they-will-come is not enough. We need to do much better at using data, at making it useful and interesting to citizens.

This means starting with understanding who those people are, what they’re interested in. It means asking who they currently turn to for information, and for support when trying to get things done. It means asking whether data (in its modern sense) is really the tool you need – perhaps radio, noticeboards or community organising might be more appropriate. If it does involve data, it means presenting it in ways that are meaningful and interesting to them. That means disaggregation to a very local level – not national or even district level, but the level of the individual school or village – and comparisons and narratives that bring the data to life. And it means thinking seriously about how you expect data to deliver change.

The infomediaries have a key role to play here: those who can act as a bridge between data and people, who combine the skill of finding stories from screens full of numbers with the ability to tell those stories in ways that engage and inspire citizens to act. And in many cases, citizens may turn to those same infomediaries to support them – to amplify their voices, to play the games that deliver change in practice. I’m talking most obviously about the media, but also about local politicians, community and religious leaders.

I realise I am asking for both ambition and realism. But that’s not necessarily a contradiction. If we can be revolutionary in our aims and practical in how we achieve them, then we will have a data revolution worthy of the name.

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I was fortunate enough to be a panellist in New York, and made these points to the meeting. The slides I prepared (which I never actually used) are below.