Is a data revolution under way, and if so, who will benefit?

Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes)

A spectre is haunting the hallways of the international bureaucracy and national statistical offices – the spectre of the data revolution.  Now, that might suggest a contradiction in terms or the butt of a joke – it’s hard to imagine a platoon of bespectacled statisticians with laptops and GIS devices toppling governments. But something important is indeed happening –let me try and convince you.

A new research report by ODI, “Data Revolution – Finding The Missing Million”, (launched yesterday in Cartagena during a Data Festival) tries to make sense of the coming data revolution and what it means for international development. According to the authors: The data revolution is “an explosion in the volume of data, the speed with which data are produced, the number of producers of data, the dissemination of data, and the range of things on which there are data, coming from new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet of things and from other sources, such as qualitative data, citizen-generated data and perceptions data.

For the numerically minded (I proudly include myself in this group) this is a rather welcome transformation. Data, data everywhere – but then why haven’t we, number geeks, solved all of the world’s problems yet?

This is where things get interesting in the report. There are two (for simplicity) main sources of statistics: official and alternative. They both present advantages and particular challenges.

Official development statistics are, for instance, rather expensive, infrequent and often miss the extremes of the distribution. The report indicates that, globally, as many as 350 million people are not covered by official household surveys – most of them either very rich or very poor.

This gap creates massive problems for the most basic of global statistics. Take global income poverty, for instance. According to Laurence Chandy from the Brookings Institution, the ‘fact’ that 25% of the people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day) are in sub-Saharan Africa – some 414 million people – is derived by extrapolating from household surveys dating from 2005 or earlier.

There are a lot of expectations about the potential of alternative sources, such as mobile phone generated data, but they are not without difficulties. The databases generated from these alternative sources are messy, often lack methodological consistency and require a lot of pruning and computing power to make basic sense of them.

But revolutions are supposed to be messy. One of the main challenges, the report argues, is the fight for space between official statistics and these alternative sources. This is, in a way, to be expected, as technological advances change the control of who generates statistics and how they’re used. There is some news that indicates that in Tanzania, for instance, the use of non-official statistics could even be criminalized.

In short, the data revolution does have a political economy element. And its success will depend on whether official statisticians see the benefit of working together with outside data scientists to learn more about the condition of a given country.

What are the opportunities to make use of these changes for the benefit of the poorest? There are two that I identify: how to use the increased availability of data for accountability and how to close the digital divide.

It won’t be easy though. There is hope that more information will automatically make governments at all levels more accountable but this seems naive. The report quotes Rakesh Rajani, formerly at Twaweza, an East African organization focusing on citizen accountability:  “There are problems of power and agency – they are the largest challenges for use of data-feedback. Just having new data or ways of analysing doesn’t trump those constraints. If the government was non-responsive before, technology and data won’t solve the problem or suddenly turn it into more responsive. Data doesn’t assure you that voice will count

Similarly, on the digital divide, the problem will not go away solely by improving data collection. The authors give an example in New Zealand relating to the Maori population: “Many Maori do not perceive themselves has having benefitted much from the data collection and use of data. They perceive a real and immediate risk of greater data availability being used for ethnic profiling to their detriment

All this suggests that data availability and measurement innovation will not be enough. There is a need for more data-driven active citizenship – or citizen engagement that makes use of all this new information to promote inclusive policies and projects and ensure effective and appropriate use of resources. The report provides several examples of where this is happening already: Citizen-led poverty lines in Asia (much higher than the accepted $1.25 a day); Dwelling surveys used to negotiate resettlements in Mumbai; Community organizations questioning the Ugandan government about the failure to meet commitments on health expenditure and increase health allocation, among others.

The report contains a lot more information and it’s hard to do justice to it on a blog (measuring poverty using roof materials as proxy, collected by satellite data? check; the rise of the Silicon Savannah in Kenya? check). It has a series of recommendations that seem obvious given the problems described – I found some of them, particularly the quick fixes, lacking in imagination. But overall the report is a very welcome piece – an easy, rather enjoyable read despite the seemingly esoteric topic.

So does this constitute a revolution or am I getting nerdily over-excited? I think new sources and, more importantly, effective use of this avalanche of data will turn many aspects of conventional government upside down, with huge potential to transform power and politics – if not ‘revolution’, what else would you call it?’

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