What Gwyneth Paltrow can teach us about the data revolution

Written by Alicia Phillips Mandaville, Research Associate at Overseas Development Institute

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow tried, and failed, the “SNAP challenge”. Social media lit up with delighted condemnations of her efforts to live on the $29 (just under £20) per week allocated to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in the United States. And while I like snarky comments about celebrities as much as the next person, the way Paltrow failed is a lesson for those of use who think we are part of a data revolution for development.

People (myself included) derided Paltrow for her for deep unawareness that if you have fundamentally less money, you don’t just have to buy fewer things, you have to buy different things. Not less of what you like, but a livable quantity of what you need. Those are different. As anyone who has ever lived on $30 (£20) a week can tell you, normal looking fresh green produce is out: you buy canned or discounted seconds if you want vegetables because you need the bulk of your budget for things that provide calories. God forbid you have a food intolerance, never mind a preference for macrobiotic eating.

We don’t need another blog disparaging Paltrow for her efforts. But for those committed to international development –­­ particularly the development data revolution, or in ICT for development space – maybe we need this reality check. What if we have been thinking of the poverty of global data the way Paltrow was thinking about SNAP?

I see a lot of writing about the need for more nationally comparable data – and there is finally a beautiful recognition that finding ways to use big data, or new collection and visualization methods – for development have costs that the international community will need to fundraise to cover. When I managed the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s data-driven country selection process, I felt that I personally suffered from the lack of this type of data, so it’s just satisfying to see people coalesce around this notion. But this revolution shouldn’t be about me and my needs anymore than the SNAP challenge is about Paltrow and hers.

While I love a data portal that lets me compare national poverty lines or human development outcomes in a beautiful visualisation, if the data isn’t published in bulk, it doesn’t really advance countries’ abilities to manage their own resources. While the idea of incorporating commercial big data into global development data fascinates me, can we talk with the same enthusiasm about how to extract value from the data that has already been collected? “But that data isn’t good enough,” I’ve heard more than one person say – and they’re right, it isn’t. But it’s what we have. Maybe it is worth a bit more digging on what kinds of marginal investments can make those sunk costs more useful in and to countries.

I want the developing world to leverage technology to leapfrog the challenges of traditional data collection as much as anyone.  I think it can, maybe even more viscerally than some. And I am delighted we are talking about financing – because this project will need resources to move forward. But no matter how much we mobilise, we will still have to work with some constraints. And this whole SNAP fiasco has been a good reminder not to overlook what Paltrow did: that when there are limited resources, you cannot overlook the things that enable basic function. They may look boring to others, but they are the ingredients on which you build your future.

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