The why, what and how of a global data revolution

In retrospect, all revolutions seem inevitable. Beforehand, all revolutions seem impossible (Michael McFaul)

In the end of 2013, Centre for Global Development, organised an event to discuss the why, what and how of data revolution together with the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21). In this very interesting discussion, the argument is made that data, used properly, is power, data empowers and leads to empowerment. However, the what, why and how questions needs some revolutionary thought. We need to find a common definition, and a new global partnership on development data.

The how and what

This CDG event discusses how data is really dealing with old problems, like poverty, but also addresses emerging priorities – not least in the light of new technology. Many challenges faces our knowledge built on data today – there’s a data gap where data simply doesn’t exist, or data exists but not in a useful form or a third option – that no one knows about the data. Are we then under a data revolution, or more an evolution of data? The discussion come to centre on the quality of data (validity, comparability) – an issue that needs to be addressed more.

One also needs to ask oneself the question of what? To increase the quality of data also yields, hopefully, to more demand for data (as it becomes more relevant). Data should answer the questions you want answered, thus requiring a shift of focus from not just data collection but also data use. The cost of bad data is high, and could lead to loss of relevancy in decision-making process. The quality of data could is also be contingent on questions design and knowledge of local conditions which could be achieved by providing subset of questions (for the local context).

The why – a need for a cultural shift

What is the use of data if it doesn’t get used? A pressing issue raised during this discussion were how, if all, data is used in the political decision making process. We need to raise political awareness of the issue of data and data production, because regardless of how much data we produce it doesn’t really matter if we can’t get the political level to make use of it. The event talks about that a cultural shift is required, that makes data central in the political process. This can also be linked to the discussion of quality as it, hopefully, will drive the demand for data. If data is not used, and used for making people’s lives better, this will eventually disengage people and turned them off to the whole concept of data. You really need to see the big picture here – from data design, to implementation and capacity-building.

There also needs to be sufficient funding of data collection, and a will to get it and use it. What if government doesn’t want to use data, in order to reveal the state of things? Data manipulation is another concern. This discussion also brings attention to the power dimensions of which data actually are gathered, and on what ground. New data emerging on things such as inequality, sustainable development and environment could all be addressing sensitive but urgent issues.


One comment

  1. I totally agree with you on your statement, that data in itself doesn’t make any difference if the decision-makers are not interested in it. Thus I think that the big revolution is under way, while minor revolutions have taken place already. Also, social media skills – like tweeting in conferences – requires skills that still nowadays not everyone has. Yet it is argued (Coxall 2009 in Bertram&Katti 2013) that if you don’t tweet you might miss half of the conference! However Denskus and Papan (2013:460) argue that development blogging has “potential to supplement, challenge, and change traditional perceptions and practices, e.g. in academia, inside aid organisations,
    and with regard to understanding expatriate aid workers and their work on the ground”.