Demographers Are Coming Into the Big Tent of the Data Revolution

This blog post is written by Kristen Stelljes, Program Officer, Hewlett Foundation

At the Hewlett Foundation, we believe that the data revolution should be a big tent where data experts and users of all stripes come together to swap ideas and form new and interesting partnerships. And there’s one group in particular that I think could have a surprisingly important role to play within this big tent: demographers.

One reason why the data revolution is so ‘revolutionary’ is that it gives different groups opportunities to work together, often for the first time. It’s a chance for citizens and civil society to talk to experts in health and education about what sort of data to collect, how to use what they already have, and how best to share it so they can monitor service quality. It’s a chance for data advocates to discuss with multilaterals what the norms and standards for sharing data should be. It’s a chance for holders of data about our cell phone calls to talk with statisticians in national statistics offices about how “big data” can complement official data. And it’s a chance for all of these groups to benefit from a demographer’s perspective and expertise.

Luckily, demographers have already come into the data revolution’s big tent. The first sign of this was the release of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population’s (IUSSP) Defining and Successfully Accomplishing the Data Revolution: The perspective of demographers (Ruth Levine blogged about it last October). And in the last couple weeks, I’ve seen how the demography community has been busy putting their ideas into action. At the Cartagena Data Festival, IUSSP teamed up with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network for a side event looking at the design and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators. Demographers shared the stage with experts from Open Data Watch, the UN Foundation, and PARIS21, among others. The panelists discussed what it would take to ensure the SDGs are measureable, valid, and useful, including building capacity over time. You can read more about monitoring demographic indicators for the SDGs in Stephane Helleringer’s recent report.

The very next week at the 2015 Population Association of America (PAA) annual conference, IUSSP brought the Data Revolution conversation to the broader demography community in a brainstorming session and a panel presentation. The session connected demographers and other population experts—from academia to a national statistics office to the UN Population Fund—to talk about what demographers can contribute to the data revolution. It turns out it’s quite a lot. Tom Moultrie from IUSSP and the University of Cape Town laid out three main areas where demographers can contribute: data quality, access and availability, and developing and enhancing institutional capacity.

Data quality: In one of the meetings at PAA, someone said you can’t fool a demographer (well, that’s not quite what he said, but this is a family-friendly blog). Demographers know how to interrogate data and get it to spill its secrets. This skill is going to be very important as we start using new kinds of data, like big data and citizen-generated data, and merging it with more traditional kinds like survey and census data. It’s also going to be important to know what the data is telling us (and what it isn’t) as we use more of it in decision making.

Access and availability: Opening up data so it can be used and understood by more people is an important part of the data revolution. That’s easier said than done, of course. We need people who know how to curate large amounts of data and get it in shape to be used responsibly by others, including proper levels of anonymization and metadata.

Developing and enhancing institutional capacity: Making good on the data revolution is going to involve a lot of capacity building—from measuring progress against the SDGs to rolling out civil registration and vital statistics systems to strengthening national statistical systems. This will not be done overnight and will require not only increasing the number of people across disciplines, but also ensuring that people working on these issues have a keen understanding of data and aren’t fooled by misleading information. It will also mean helping people to expand their repertoire to include new types of data.

As the data revolution moves along, and more and more people come into the big tent, the greater chance there is for unexpected relationships to develop and for us to learn something from each other. For me, it would be great if through this process we all get the phone number of a demographer or two we can call with questions—and a big data expert, and a statistical capacity-building expert, and an open data expert, and on and on. So, at the next data revolution meeting, be on the lookout for a demographer to befriend. I expect we’ll be seeing more of them.

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