What Might a Data Revolution Mean in Africa?

By Wanja Njogah and Joseph Hoffman, Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR)

This is the 16th post in our blog series on ‘What kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?

Must-haves for a data revolution in Africa include better coordination of government data collection, cross-stakeholder collaboration and buy-in, capacity strengthening of data users and producers, improvement in supporting infrastructure, and enhancement of African ownership of data use and access at all levels from citizen to government.

These are some of the thoughts that emerged from the African Forum on a Post-2015 Data Revolution held in Nairobi, December 2013, by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), in collaboration with the United Nations Foundation and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

About fifty participants from the African research community (universities, think tanks, and other research organisations), as well as African governments, international and regional organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs), the private sector, and selected non-African research organisations discussed the practical implications of a “data revolution” for Africa.  Participants from the outside the region, including the global South, also contributed their perspectives and helped identify cross-cutting issues.

The meeting explored the specific challenges faced by African researchers in the collection, access and use of primary and secondary data, and particular actions that they could undertake to enhance data sharing.  These challenges included young people’s disinterest in doing research; weak partnerships and data sharing between research organisations and National Statistical Offices (NSOs), NGOs and universities; the high cost of doing research; and definition of the research agenda by donors rather than Africans.

The need for NSOs to be independent of government and work collaboratively with research institutions and universities came across strongly, as did deficient institutional capacity.  The possibility of engaging local participants in producing data surfaced as a possible solution to respondent fatigue.  Strengthening underlying source data and innovative use of technology were tagged as key to producing better data on which development decisions can be based.

Also, the private sector and CSOs are increasingly involved in data collection.  Developments in technology and social networking in Africa offer the potential to leverage the use of data in a regional and national context.  Key discussion points included involving citizens in gathering data, making data comparable across countries, enhancing the capacity of CSOs and NGOs to use mobile phone/SMS technology and the need to make data more digestible and meaningful to policy makers and ‘regular’ citizens.

Among the “must haves” identified by Forum participants were the need to address:

  • The uneven capacity of actors at the national level to effectively contribute to data collection, access and use.  This includes not only NSOs and government bodies, but also CSOs, research institutions, media and the private sector.  Dealing with acute differences in capacity across African countries is also critical.
  • The lack of cross-stakeholder discussion at the national and regional level on data issues associated with the post-2015 development agenda as well as more specific national policy goals.
  • The challenges of data collection in environments where a large proportion of social and economic activity is informal and outside the scope of conventional registries and databases, especially in fragile and conflict affected states.
  • Uncoordinated data collection activities across government institutions.
  • Overcoming scepticism regarding the buy-in of governments to the broader process of post-2015 development goals and the achievement of a data revolution at the national level.
  • Technology, infrastructure and connectivity that is inadequate for data collection and dissemination, and too costly to be accessible.
  • Building a shared sense of ownership and investment so that the data collected and used is relevant to Africans and not driven or owned by elsewhere.
  • Taking greater advantage of local resources and actors to ensure that data collected locally is also shared and used locally.
  • National change management strategies to get people to think differently and do things differently in a data intensive environment.
  • The variety of legal gaps and ambiguities related to information ownership, privacy rights and freedom of information associated with both public information and private sector data.
  • Mobilising the African research community (think tanks and universities) to tackle data access problems, lack of innovation in sharing data and knowledge between researchers, standards and compatibility of data, language barriers, and to contribute meaningfully to national discourse on policy governing data collection, use and access.

Full discussion highlights and findings from the meeting will be published at http://www.pasgr.org/african-forum-on-post-2015-data-revolution/

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