A bottom-up data revolution for post-2015

Written by Ian Thorpe, Team Leader, Knowledge Management, Monitoring and Evaluation at the UN Development Operations Coordination Office, and blogger at “KM on a Dollar a Day”.

This is the 14th post in our blog series onWhat kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?

The High Level Panel’s report on post-2015 called for a “data revolution”. This blog series has already made clear a strong enthusiasm about the possibilities for new data analysis to support the implementation and monitoring of a post-2015 agenda, but also a wide range of interpretations regarding what this means, who will be the principal actors and who will benefit.

Often the benefit is seen in terms of having access to better statistics, real time monitoring and feedback, big data analysis and transparent data on aid and government spending. Such a treasure trove of data could support better the monitoring and evaluation of development interventions so that aid agencies can design better programmes, donors can allocate resources more efficiently and researchers can better test their development theories.

But I’d argue that the most significant and also most challenging part of the data revolution will come from the bottom up. While aid transparency can help to hold funders or even partner governments to account, the area where improved accountability is most needed is with respect to those whom the aid is intended to help.

One promising area is to solicit feedback and ideas for development projects directly from the communities where they are implemented. Both new technologies (such as SMS or online surveys) and old technologies (public opinion polls, paper questionnaires, interviews) can collect information on the preferences of project beneficiaries and their satisfaction with the services they are receiving. This is helpful both to improve programme design, but also to give the poor a voice (“nothing about us without us”). See “listening to the people we work for” for more on this idea.

But people don’t always tell you what they really want or really think. Sometimes policymakers also have to see how they act, or even try to “walk a mile in their shoes” to understand better the lives they lead, the challenges they face, the choices they make and why they make them. Ethnographic studies have been with the development world for a long time, and the notion of “human centred design” is also not new – but a data revolution can expand the use of these techniques and make them easier and cheaper. The use of “big data” to observe behaviour patterns such as access to mobile phones, transport or health services can help us understand much more about how people are really making choices. Similarly, the use of remote sensing devices, hand-held cameras and recorders and other tools can help to scale up ethnographic research and participatory evaluation, including giving individuals and communities the tools and skills to “document themselves” and share their own stories.

An even stronger step, still in its early stages, is to empower citizens in developing countries by providing them with the tools and skills to take advantage of the data revolution themselves. At a simple level, this can mean enabling access to data and the skills necessary to use it to make individual decisions (such as choosing between schools or health centers, or making healthy nutritional choices). A more ambitious goal would be to enable people to develop the skills they need to mobilize and advocate for common interests, making use of the data that is out there (and often about them), rather than relying on the decisions of others with stronger technical skills and more financial resources.

The open data revolution is a good starting point for empowering citizens, but in reality most, especially in developing countries, lack the capacity to make effective use of this data. Instead open data may create a new “digital divide” between those who have the ability to collect and analyze the new data, and those who do not. Rich world governments, academia and private enterprise may be the main beneficiaries of these new data sources while those we are trying to support are once more left behind.

In the end, to realize the promise of the data revolution and to use it to bring about sustainable change, we need to think from the bottom up rather than the top down. We need to develop the capacities of the communities we seek to serve, including the most disadvantaged. That way, they can participate fully in the new data revolution and lead their own development, rather than rely on the goodwill and analytical capacities of others.

2 Comments on "A bottom-up data revolution for post-2015"

  1. I agree that the data “revolution” must and necessarily will be driven from the “bottom” – actually, by those who are struggling at the top, at the coal-face of the struggle for human progress, those who should command the highest priority for the attention of the rest of us who are paid to support and empower their efforts. Who then ARE these revolutionaries – acting now, or in the making? HOW and WHERE is their data-revolutionary leadership emerging, and how can it be enabled, facilitated, encouraged and empowered, where needed, by the rest of us? For “revolutions”, even or not least in “open data”, are made by definition by revolutionaries: leaders, organizers and actors. And how and what can the non-leaders (including in the international development profession) do in support of them, and their organization and management of this revolution?

    A second-order question: will there be losers from this data revolution? What data, methods, assumptions and practices will be superseded in the process?

    • Very interesting article. I agree that everything should start from the concrete needs of people (bottom).

      But if there is any ‘data revolution’, ‘transparency revolution’ or ‘accountability revolution’, these will be quiet ones. The word ‘revolution’ implies a sudden change with some spectacular results. I don’t believe in this. There are just too many steps and challenges between collecting and making data available on the one side, and seeing positive outcomes in development aid and the lives of people on the other. We use dramatic words to pump up enthusiasm (needlessly in my opinion).

      To answer Richard, I believe that for lasting change to happen, there should be no losers. I don’t see what is happening with the open data movement as preparation for a war but as a fantastic opportunity to accompany the democratic governance processes in developing countries. And this will take time.

      I recently met some of those ‘data revolutionaries’ in Kenya. They are definitely not your Che Guevara-types 😉 as I wrote here: http://www.bourgoing.com/en/2013/12/watchdogs-or-critical-friends/

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