Thinking about #data (for development)?

Eraptis, September 22.

Thinking about data (for development) has really got me thinking. What is data, and what makes it “big”? How can it be used in the context of development, and which data really matters – is all data created equal? Blogging to reflect on these and other questions, sharing our thoughts with the (social media) world, might help in putting these things into perspective. It may even change how we view things. But then again, to who are we talking – who reads our blogs, and which blogs do we read ourselves?

Tobias Denskus and Andrea S. Papan have taken a closer look into the practices of blogging by development practitioners. In their paper, they interviewed a set of international development bloggers’ on their motivations for maintaining a blog. Although the motivations might be many, their research primarily points towards some individual reasons for maintaining a blog. Among the reasons stated were venting and reflecting on everyday occurrences in the professional life of the bloggers, putting them “out there” for others to engage with. The “Others” mainly comprising other development professionals sharing and consuming information as a way to stay in tune with the “hot topics” of the development sphere, and as a way to show one’s own expertise on the issues of the day. The networking aspect of it all, thus, seems to be an important motivation for blogging – leading to both virtual and real meetings. From an organizational perspective, these things certainly have the potential to create innovative ideas, and lead to improved processes – but there seems to be something missing. As the authors also point out, for blogging to be truly impactful, it needs to turn away from this inward tendency to also engage with local communities.

Why is this important? In my view, it potentially reflects a common practice of development discourse to view the means to an end as the end itself. ICT and data seem to be no different. In the opening chapter of his recent book, Tim Unwin argues exactly this point when writing:

All too often, ICT4D research and practice has been technologically driven, and has therefore tended to replicate existing social and economic structures, thereby failing sufficiently to explore, interpret, or change the very conditions that have given rise to them.” – Tim Unwin 

So – how to challenge this? Perhaps a good starting point is to look at the very definition of “data”, defined by the Oxford dictionaries as “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”. Data, thus, is by its very nature positivistic. It can, at best, tell us what ”is”. But can data be normative? Can data tell us what ”should be”? As Spratt and Baker writes, the answer is not straight forward. While some would argue that if the data sets were just big enough theory as we know it would cease to exist, others point to such statements as hubris – dangerously overestimating the potential of technology to advance development.

Although I would tend to join ranks with the latter, I simultaneously share Unwin’s optimistic mindset that done right ICTs can indeed be a powerful medium for advancing development. But before that can happen we all need to engage in self-reflection and be critical about the appropriate use of ICT4D in order to consider all aspects of an implementation of data-driven development initiatives. At the heart of all this, Unwin argues, lies adopting a critical theory mindset. Among many things, this means doing away with the rather naïve and problematic notion that ICT, in and by itself, is good. And instead see it for what it is, one of many potential means to an end where the central aspect must be to understand the needs of those people for whom these kinds of interventions are intended. In the context of big data, this means working with and empowering those peoples to both generate and analyze this kind of information for themselves.

Before ending this post I would like to leave you with a thought related to one of my initial questions – is all data created equal? Well, Spratt and Baker note that big data analysis, particularly in the context of social media, is heavily biased towards information in the English language. If data is “facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis”, and most data analyzed is in English, then who’s voices are we really listening to?

Featured image: Eventfinda


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  1. Diana Uljanova Sigfusson

    To answer your question: no, all data is not equal. In my eyes, anyway, it is not. I think that we should be critical to all kind of information on social media. Much of what we read is, unfortunately, biased. It is not many sources left, that is still objective.

    Thank you for yours analyse of #data, #data4comdev. I agree with you (and Unwin) that ICT is a powerful medium. But it has its risks, for example, a lot of bloggers are struggling to “push” their post “out there” to raise awareness/get attention to a particular issue.

    • Yes – I agree, being critical towards information is becoming ever so important. This is something to have in mind also when enabling people through ICT, that information is often biased and sometimes even completely false. Adopting a critical (theory) mindset must therefore be an integral part of any such process.

  2. Simona Gibauskaite

    Thank you for such an interesting discussion. I also tend to think that data is biased. Collecting data requires a substantial amount of money and organizations probably prefer selling their products to financially well-suited people.
    Regarding the field of development, big data is a both promising and complicated issue. It all depends on how and for which purpose you use it. Do NGOs simply collect data for data’s sake or are trying to solve a problem? I also wonder how they can effectively use data to address humanitarian causes. For instance, if we are working on the scarcity of water, besides merely statistical information, it is essential to reveal what factors prevent the population from access to clean drinkable water. After all, it must be complemented with an in-depth analysis that would include a more participatory approach.
    As you indicate, Unwin provides an excelent explanation of the complicated relation between developoment and new technologies. ICT needs to overcome the socio-economic constraints inherent to it so that to serve the most disadvantageous.

    • Thank you for your comment!

      I really like your question “Do NGOs simply collect data for data’s sake or are they trying to solve a problem?”. I think this is one of the main issues regarding the discussion of Results Based Management (RBM) in development cooperation. On the one hand NGOs usually need to specify a theory of change, including indicators for monitoring and evaluation, according to the logical framework approach in their grant proposals towards funders. But although they request funds in order to solve a problem, they already at the outset lock themselves into a pre-specified M&E framework for which they become accountable. Naturally, they have a big incentive to collect data on those indicators and produce predetermined results. In that sense, one might say that they collect data just for the sake of it. However, in fairness, many NGOs conduct research and evaluations together with partners and universities in order to further their approach towards tackling their particular problems. From this perspective, they use data to affect their cause.

      • Simona Gibauskaite

        Thank you for giving examples of different reasons behind data collection in the NGO sector. I have an impression that development organizations are turning into an industry with strictly defined capitalist logic and working methods. Mainstream agencies can benefit from data,for instance, they might improve the outcomes or apply more successful strategies when addressing a particular issue. This,in the end,implies more donor trust and financial support. I wonder whether smaller grassroots organizations have equal opportunities in collecting and analyzing data.

  3. You have carried out an interesting discussion and I was particularly tickled by your assertion that there is a need of, “…doing away with the rather naïve and problematic notion that ICT, in and by itself, is good. And instead see it for what it is, one of many potential means to an end where the central aspect must be to understand the needs of those people for whom these kinds of interventions are intended…”
    I think this captures one of the biggest controversies in development work. Instead of blindly hailing ICT as the click- and -fix -all -world´s -problems button, it is wise to realise that ICT, like any other tool can be used for good or bad. ICT being used for development depends on the intensions and motives of the wielder of that tool. If ICT is in the hands of one who views development through an “I am the saviour”, or a “top-down” lens that removes agency from the beneficiaries, then the so called “development” one sets out to accomplish will be one sided or even misconceived. To be able to use data and ICT as instruments that can bring about development, one needs, I think, to first reflect on what this “development” is in the first place, whose development and through whose perspective. When the ideology motivating the wielder of the tool is set right, then the tool can be a means to something good.

    • I’d like to thank you very much for your comment Santino! I am very happy you brought the question of what, and for whom, is “development”? What I liked about Tim Unwin’s book is that the question “for whom” runs through his analysis departing from critical theory. What is maybe missing a bit from Unwin’s analysis is your first question – “what” is development? In my second blog post I tried to bring in aspects of this question mainly through the work of Naila Kabeer and Dorothea Kleine which in both cases builds on Amartya Sen focusing on, as you mentioned, the agency, capabilities and choices of individuals. That’s one perspective, but there are many others. Perhaps this manifests itself in some way through the many “branches” of development such as ICT FOR development, communication FOR development, sport FOR development to mention a few. In essence, these are all means to achieve development but many times it’s almost like the means are the ends. What do you think? Happy to continue the dialogue.