Welcome to the Data Revolution

(Claire shares her views on the Cartagena Data Festival. I will share my own views, but I wanted to repost this blog first published in Development Progress – RFN)

Author:  Claire Melamed (@clairemelamed)

Take 457 interesting, clever and enthusiastic people. Put them in a beautiful tropical setting for three days.  Add a dash of art and music, sit back and watch the ideas flow.

This was the happy position I was in last week, as the Cartagena Data Festival finally happened, after nearly a year of planning and incredibly hard work by all involved. And what a week it was. We heard from governments, from companies and from NGOs. We debated privacy and discussed indicators of human welfare. We coded and we danced. But most of all, we found a group of like-minded people, all there not because they cared about data for data’s sake, but about data used to improve people’s lives.

We all know that the data aren’t good enough.  For some issues, such as maternal mortality, the data are so poor that the real rate at which women are dying might be twice as high as we think it is. This matters. Governments cannot plan and deliver effective services, if they don’t know the scale and the distribution of the problems they are trying to solve. People and organisations cannot hold those governments to account if they don’t know how and where money is spent, and what the outcomes are.

Festival-goers heard about what’s already happening to change all this. From improving education in Kenya to improving rubbish collection in Buenos Aires, from providing information to farmers in Colombia to understanding the dynamics of rural poverty in the Philippines, time, energy and money are being put to work for better data and better decisions all over the world. The festival was the chance for the ‘doers’ to get together and get practical.

There was a political dimension too.  We’re at a moment where, maybe for the first time, there’s political energy and momentum around fixing the problems with data. Through the UN, governments are about to agree the new set of Sustainable Development Goals, that will set the benchmark for progress for the next 15 years. Achieving the goals will require better data for making policy. Measuring progress towards these goals will require better data for monitoring. All this will take investments, take innovations, and take ideas. That is also what Cartagena was about.

Governments were there to think together about how to make the right investments to meet the growing expectations of their populations and of international organisations for more and better data. International organisations, donors, the private sector and academics were there to share ideas about how to do that. Civil society organisations were there to share their experiences of collecting and using the data that allow citizens to know if governments are keeping their promises. A group of journalists led a very lively session on how to get all of this across to the general public.

I’m still processing all of the ideas that came out of the three days. But it’s already very evident that getting people together in one place – especially those who don’t usually get a chance to talk to each other – was a hugely valuable exercise. At least 10 people have already asked me if there’ll be another one next year. There’s clearly demand for a regular World Forum on Data, a Global Partnership on Data, or some such entity, to keep the momentum going.

Cartagena was special – not just the Festival, but also the city and the venue – one of the most beautiful places I’ve been lucky enough to visit. It felt like the start of something big and something special. And, I hope, something lasting that is emerging from the past 12 months of excitement about the data revolution.

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