Data for Data’s Sake?

”Data has become increasingly important to the way we think and talk about conflict and our humanitarian responses to it”, Read, Taithe and Ginty write in their article ”Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology” from 2016. They exemplify this by referring to the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s ”call for a ”data revolution””, which ”would draw on existing and new sources of data to fully integrate statistics into decision making, promote open access to, and use of, data” (UN High Level Panel; Read, Taithe and Ginty (2016, p. 1).

However, ”data is not knowledge”, as the authors of this article emphasize, and they refer to geographer Trevor Barnes’ question: are we generating useful knowledge or are we collecting ”data for data’s sake”? (Read, Taithe, Ginty, 2016, p. 2).

I can relate this very well to my experience from advising newly arrived refugees at my home town in Northern Norway. From the moment when new asylum seekers or refugees arrive in Norway, the different authorities that are involved in the processing of the refugees’ cases will begin to gather data about them and their families. Throughout their asylum process and after they are granted a residence permit, the same data will be gathered again and again because so many different bodies or stakeholders are involved. In our work, therefore, I sometimes question myself if we are collecting ”data for data’s sake”. New technology gives us opportunities to collect, store and manage data in new ways. At the same time, the requirement on data collection, together with applying new (and sometimes hard to implement) technology where the data is stored, has the tendency to be caught up in bureocratic procedures that may make our work much less efficient than it could have been.

In their article, Read et al. conclude that ”the declarations of emancipation via a data revolution are premature” (Read et al, 2016, p. 12). The cases for this conclusion may be different from my case of data gathering about refugees, however the conclusions can be applied here as well. The authors of the article suggest, among other things, an improvement of the data-processing capabilities of humanitarian organisations as well as a request to ”collect enough, but not excessive, information” (p 13). This needs to be taken into consideration in the “data revolution” that is called for by the UN High Level Panel.

This is not intended to be a pessimistic statement against the ICT for development (ICT4D) or the ”datafication” of humanitarian work, but is meant to highlight one of the challenges one is facing when the digital world meets humanitarian work or development practice. New perspectives on this will come in the following blog posts.

References: Roisin Read, Bertrand Taithe & Roger Mac Ginty (2016): Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly.

UN High Level Panel, Economies through Sustainable Development.