A data revolution is underway. Will NGOs miss the boat?

Opinion by Sophia Ayele at Oxfam: “The data revolution has arrived. ….The UN has even launched a Data Revolution Group (to ensure that the revolution penetrates into international development). The Group’s 2014 report suggests that harnessing the power of newly available data could ultimately lead to, “more empowered people, better policies, better decisions and greater participation and accountability, leading to better outcomes for people and the planet.”

But where do NGOs fit in?

NGOs are generating dozens (if not hundreds) of datasets every year. Over the last two decades, NGO have been collecting increasing amounts of research and evaluation data, largely driven by donor demands for more rigorous evaluations of programs. The quality and efficiency of data collection has also been enhanced by mobile data collection. However, a quick scan of UK development NGOs reveals that few, if any, are sharing the data that they collect. This means that NGOs are generating dozens (if not hundreds) of datasets every year that aren’t being fully exploited and analysed. Working on tight budgets, with limited capacity, it’s not surprising that NGOs often shy away from sharing data without a clear mandate.

But change is in the air. Several donors have begun requiring NGOs to publicise data and others appear to be moving in that direction. Last year, USAID launched its Open Data Policy which requires that grantees “submit any dataset created or collected with USAID funding…” Not only does USAID stipulate this requirement, it also hosts this data on its Development Data Library (DDL) and provides guidance on anonymisation to depositors. Similarly, Gates Foundation’s 2015 Open Access Policy stipulates that, “Data underlying published research results will be accessible and open immediately.” However, they are allowing a two-year transition period…..Here at Oxfam, we have been exploring ways to begin sharing research and evaluation data. We aren’t being required to do this – yet – but, we realise that the data that we collect is a public good with the potential to improve lives through more effective development programmes and to raise the voices of those with whom we work. Moreover, organizations like Oxfam can play a crucial role in highlighting issues facing women and other marginalized communities that aren’t always captured in national statistics. Sharing data is also good practice and would increase our transparency and accountability as an organization.

… the data that we collect is a public good with the potential to improve lives. However, Oxfam also bears a huge responsibility to protect the rights of the communities that we work with. This involves ensuring informed consent when gathering data, so that communities are fully aware that their data may be shared, and de-identifying data to a level where individuals and households cannot be easily identified.

As Oxfam has outlined in our, recently adopted, Responsible Data Policy,”Using data responsibly is not just an issue of technical security and encryption but also of safeguarding the rights of people to be counted and heard, ensuring their dignity, respect and privacy, enabling them to make an informed decision and protecting their right to not be put at risk… (More)”

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