For those of you who have been following the discussion of the post-2015 UN development agenda, the term “data revolution” will not be a new one. The call for a data revolution came out of the 2013 UN High Level Panel report on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, and ever since has sparked a flurry of commentary from those working in the development sector. Commentators and bloggers around the internet have weighed in to dissect what this term means, whether or not it’s what we actually need, and how a data-revolution should and could be enacted (for some of the discussions check out post2015.org powered by ODI).
Most of the focus to date has been on national statistics offices (NSO) and the collection of national-level data. How this can be encouraged, funded, and ensured that useful, accurate and timely data is collected in countries that have not had consistent data collection over time. Incidentally, the countries lacking reliable and consistent basic national statistics are often the same countries with large development needs.
With all this discussion around the large-scale national level data collection, what does the data revolution actually mean for the little guys? Specifically, what does it mean for the individual aid agencies and community development organisations working on the ground implementing projects?
Better data available to use
As national statistics offices are encouraged to increase and improve data collection, better data will become available for everyone to use – including small NGOs. There have been many calls in the course of data revolution discussions to invest more into NSOs to enable them to collect more reliable data and regularly report accurate basic statistics. Ideally, more investment and training will also afford NSOs more independence from both internal politics and the wants of external donors.
The influence of politicians and donors can be problematic for NSOs in different ways. In some countries statistics are vulnerable to politics, and it is not unheard of for politicians to request that statistics be “edited” to fit within their political needs. Investment in local think tanks and media groups to be able to keep tabs on this, and to expose incidents of political interference, will likely be part of the ongoing solution. On the other hand, large donors (often foreign or international development organisations) will sometimes fund NSOs to collect the data that they specifically require, in the donor’s preferred format. While the funding ensures that data is collected, it may not be the data that the government actually needs or it may not be in the same format as previous national surveys eliminating the possibility of comparing national-level changes over time. If NSOs can become more independent from political whim in their country, as well as pressures from external donors, they will be able to present statistics with less bias.
As well as better data available from NSOs the data revolution will hopefully encourage and enable better administrative data to be collected and openly reported. In developed countries there is often good administrative data that can be used instead of self-report survey data (e.g., actual school attendance records rather than asking people if their children attended school last week in a household survey). In many developing countries administrative data can be inaccurate or inadequate to the point of not being useful. As part of the data revolution there will hopefully be more investment, and better attention paid to administrative data. Both encouraging accurate collection, and reducing “perverse incentives” to misreport administrative data (that is, incentives that encourage some number fudging). For example, when incentives are paid by an external donor for activities such as immunisations, this can lead to an increase in immunisations reported but not necessarily an actual increase in immunisations administered. More open administrative data could allow NSOs, as well as civil society bodies, to “fact check” the data reported by line ministries, and vice versa.
With an emphasis on, and hopefully an improvement in, accurate and open national level data one of the major impacts of the data revolution will be an improvement in the data available that NGOs can use to truly understand the countries they are working in.
More of an emphasis on good data (and more pressure)
While much of the emphasis in discussions to date has been focussed around the role of governments, donors and large funding organisations on facilitating the collection and use of national statistics, this drive for better data will impact all organisations in the development sector. Campaigns to improve access and reporting of open data in development will likely be strengthened by the data revolution. As expectations around collecting and reporting data change, all players in the development industry will be expected to improve their own procedures – including the smaller organisations and NGOs. It could be that in order to gain grants in the future, the expectations for data collection and reporting will be much more stringent than they already are.
More tools becoming available for data collection
Although higher expectations around open data are likely to initially create pressure for small NGOs, the push for improved data standards will drive innovation making more and better tools available for aid organisations to use to improve their data collection and reporting strategies. Given the nature of the work, there is likely to be an emphasis on collecting accurate data cheaply in remote locations and difficult situations. There are already app based methods to collect data in the field but increased demand will lead to increased funding, more innovation, and greater competition. All of this should result in more and better tools available for development professionals in every type of organisation to ease the burden of data collection and reporting.
Expectations of open and accessible data
There will be increasing expectations for organisations to publish data, make data open for others to view and use. Already, the UK Department for International Development has made it compulsory for all NGOs receiving central funds to publish their data to the IATI and it’s likely that other donors will follow suit.
As these expectations build, it will be necessary for organisations to ensure they have the capacity to collect and publish data. This can be a challenge in modern development organisations, when (along with navigating the logistical difficulties of recording data in complex situations) organisations may have to show that a certain percentage of donor dollars was spent on delivering projects, rather than on administrative overheads. If data collection is considered to be an overhead task, rather than project task, smaller organisations in particular will feel the pressure meet reporting requirements on dwindling budgets.
Availability of training and resources
If the idea of a data revolution truly gains traction, ideally this will lead to greater availability of training and resources specifically designed for data collection in international development, or simply, data collection in developing countries. Already there are many resources available, the Open Development Toolkit is one good place to start.
Standardisation of measures for greater efficiency
Household surveys are often conducted in specific regions by organisations anyway, one way that this data revolution (although in many cases it will feel more like a data evolution) might play out is the push to standardise the measures (questions) used in household surveys. This will allow the aggregation of different datasets into larger datasets that are comparable and usable. It will mean that there won’t necessarily need to be new data collection, and additional funding, but a standardised way to leverage off the data collection that is already happening. In order to ensure that your organisation’s data is the most useful that it can be, it will be important to follow the conventions that are established moving forward.
Potential uses of big data
And of course, a conversation about the data revolution would not be complete without at least a passing reference to big data. Big data has been a consistent buzzword in recent years, and it’s unlikely to fall out of favour any time soon. The international aid community seem to still be grappling with what big data is, and how exactly it might be used in the development context.
“Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.” Dan Ariely
This apt quote is still relevant, although it’s now several years old. There have been many examples discussed of how big data could be used for international development – such as using mobile phone data to monitor the rate of credit top-ups as a proxy for income, or to track population activity in natural disasters or epidemics. However, while the potential of big data is exciting, it’s still unclear how development organisations can best harness new data for the greatest benefit.
As the data revolution progresses, it will be important that the excitement of big data doesn’t detract from the importance of regular, potentially boring, medium data. If we get lost looking at the shiny new technologically advanced methods of using big data, then we might forget about the basic statistics and household surveys that we still need. If it is easier and more appealing for big donors to fund these new exciting ideas then the NSOs and the collection of basic statistics might miss out.
Small NGOs will likely benefit from new tools and methods to harness big data that emerge through the data revolution, as well as the improvements in basic national-level statistics.
Change is certainly in the air with the data revolution. In some cases this will likely to be a progression of what currently exists, while in other areas there will need to be a step change in order to realise the high expectations of the data revolution.
For smaller organisations the data revolution is likely to result in:
- Better data available to use
- More of an emphasis on good data (and more pressure to provide good data)
- More tools becoming available for data collection and reporting
- Expectations of open and accessible data
- Increased availability of training and resources
- Standardisation of measures for greater efficiency – and the expectation to use standardised measures
- Increased understanding of how to use big data
How else do you think the data revolution might impact smaller NGOs working in the development arena? Join the discussion below.
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