Category Archives: Data Revolution

A data revolution is underway. Will NGOs miss the boat?

Guest blogger, Sophia Ayele, looks at the role of NGOs within the data revolution and shares Oxfam’s experiences preparing to share data responsibly. 

The data revolution has arrived. Data is all around us – every time we Google, post on Twitter or walk down the street with our phones, we are generating data. A recent ODI Report Data Revolution – Finding The Missing Million described this revolution as, “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…” This explosion of data is increasingly being harnessed to look for patterns and to provide additional insights about our world.

More and more governments are adopting open data policies, providing access to official statistics. Multilateral institutions have also jumped on board. The World Bank’s Open Data Initiative has been running for the last five years. Academics, like the Poverty Action Lab at MIT and Young Lives Project out of the Univ. of Oxford are also sharing data. The UN has even launched a Data Revolution Group (to ensure that the revolution penetrates into international development). The Group’s 2014 report suggests that harnessing the power of newly available data could ultimately lead to, “more empowered people, better policies, better decisions and greater participation and accountability, leading to better outcomes for people and the planet.”

But where do NGOs fit in?   

Over the last two decades, NGO have been collecting increasing amounts of research and evaluation data, largely driven by donor demands for more rigorous evaluations of programs. The quality and efficiency of data collection has also been enhanced by mobile data collection. However, a quick scan of UK development NGOs reveals that few, if any, are sharing the data that they collect. This means that NGOs are generating dozens (if not hundreds) of datasets every year that aren’t being fully exploited and analysed. Working on tight budgets, with limited capacity, it’s not surprising that NGOs often shy away from sharing data without a clear mandate.

But change is in the air. Several donors have begun requiring NGOs to publicise data and others appear to be moving in that direction. Last year, USAID launched its Open Data Policy which requires that grantees “submit any dataset created or collected with USAID funding…” Not only does USAID stipulate this requirement, it also hosts this data on its Development Data Library (DDL) and provides guidance on anonymisation to depositors. Similarly, Gates Foundation’s 2015 Open Access Policystipulates that, “Data underlying published research results will be accessible and open immediately.” However, they are allowing a two-year transition period.

Is there a responsible path for NGOs like Oxfam?

At Oxfam, we have been exploring ways to begin sharing research and evaluation data. We aren’t being required to do this – yet – but, we realise that the data that we collect is a public good with the potential to improve lives through more effective development programs and to raise the voices of those with whom we work. Moreover, organizations like Oxfam can play a crucial role in highlighting issues facing women and other marginalized communities that aren’t always captured in national statistics. Sharing data is also good practice and would increase our transparency and accountability as an organization.

However, we also bear a huge responsibility to protect the rights of the communities that we work with. This involves ensuring informed consent when gathering data, so that communities are fully aware that their data may be shared, and de-identifying data to a level where individuals and households cannot be easily identified.

As Oxfam has outlined in our, recently adopted, Responsible Data Policy, “Using data responsibly is not just an issue of technical security and encryption but also of safeguarding the rights of people to be counted and heard, ensuring their dignity, respect and privacy, enabling them to make an informed decision and protecting their right to not be put at risk…”

This policy, which outlines Oxfam’s approach to data collection and use as well as minimum standards for staff, partners and contractors, is helping to guide our work. We have also consulted widely, spent time learning about good practice for data de-identification and researched the safest data hosting platforms. As experts will tell you, true anonymisation is virtually impossible, but there are established good practices for removing personal information from data. The Responsible Data Forum and UK Anonymisation Network (which provides free anonymisation clinics) have all been extremely helpful in this process.

We have identified the UK Data Service as a safe platform and plan to begin sharing data there in the autumn. The UK Data Service provides secure access to data for research purposes. Data is only available to registered users and there are strict controls on how it can be handled and used. We are also working with our legal and information security teams to review our internal systems and rules around data collection, handling and storage.

This has involved revamping guidelines for staff, consultants and partners working with data and developing a system of oversight to ensure that data will be adequately de-identified prior to deposit with UK Data Service. We have also developed internal controls to determine when it is appropriate and safe to share data. In some cases, we may decide not to share data. For example, if they are determined to be of a highly sensitive nature and could put people at risk.

We are very proud of this initiative and excited about the contribution that it will make to the development knowledge-base. Nonetheless, we are proceeding with caution, as it feels a bit like venturing out into uncharted waters. The process will take place gradually, starting with a small number of datasets and expanding overtime.

As we navigate the complexities of informed consent and de-identification, one thing is clear – the data revolution is here and it’s here to stay.

The question isn’t whether NGOs should engage with it. It’s when and how.

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.

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?’