Category Archives: Development

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.

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?’

A Glimpse of South Africa’s Multi-Layered Inequality

Author: Katherine Trebeck, Global Research Policy Adviser, Oxfam Great Britain @ktrebeck

It started at the boarding gate at Heathrow.

Of South Africa’s 54 million population, the majority are black (80 per cent), compared to 9 percent white. Yet at Gate C54 where a flight from London to Johannesburg was boarding, almost every person in the queue seemed to be white. Of course I knew that South Africa’s economic inequality followed racial lines. But as I got on the plane (for a trip to work with colleagues and to visit some community projects), I have to admit feeling shocked that this aspect of inequality was so visibly manifest in a little microcosm of privilege and wealth.

Another dimension of this inequality is seen in the extent of food insecurity – one in four people in South Africa are hungry on a regular basis. One might think that such statistics concur with how we ‘Heathrow-istas’ too easily stereotype ‘Africa’ – as a monolithic country in a constant state of drought, famine and war. Yet, that is far from the reality – South Africa is, in fact, ‘food-secure’; i.e. it produces enough calories to feed every citizen.

That so many go hungry is a matter of distribution, not scarcity.

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Are We Ready to Leapfrog with Renewable Energy?

Author: John Magrath, Programme Researcher, Oxfam Great Britain

In ‘Here Comes the Sun’ Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva asked, ‘could it be possible that there is already an explosion in renewable energy capacity, technology and investment underway that is not really being picked up by policy makers and media?’ He went on to argue bullishly that this is indeed the case.

The latest global assessment of trends in renewable energy investments gives further backing to the argument – and suggests that renewables are increasingly close to bursting the seams of the straitjacket of structural constraints imposed by current energy systems. In so doing, they will likely challenge the entire infrastructure of, and business models behind, the gridded power systems that so many of us have grown up with.

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Guardian readers like Oxfam’s research.

Author: Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes)

A piece of feedback is always well received. During the holiday break, the Guardian ran a pice about the 10 ten most-read business stories in 2014. The research we did on inequality and concentration of wealth around the world (“Working for the Few”) and Britain (“Tale of Two Britains”) are the focus of the stories in spots 4 and 5, respectively. Our contributions are sandwiched between a story on “Tesco’s ‘penis’-themed buttermilk and other design fails” (number 3) and one on fights in planes over seat reclining (number 6). The Guardian readers sure like diversity in their topics.

Anyway, 2014 was the year that inequality became mainstream, as the Guardian story suggest. The English translation of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was probably the most important contribution. But it’s also worth remarking the constant push by the IMF, and Christina Lagarde in particular, on the topic. Just read some of what she said last year: “Fundamentally, excessive inequality makes capitalism less inclusive. It hinders people from participating fully and developing their potential.” It’s a big turnaround from about a decade ago. Anne Krueger, then First Manager Deputy Director at the Fund, used to say then: “One has to wonder about this preoccupation with inequality” – I wonder if she’s changed her position given the recent evidence.

I’m happy we were able to contribute to this change in the public debate. Lots more to do, among them make sure that the UN post-2015 process keeps the issue of inequality at the center of the agenda. Back to work now. Happy 2015!

UPDATE: More feedback. In Duncan’s blog From Poverty to Power, the post reviewing “Working For The Few” is the second most-read from last year.

The Inequality and Injustice of Humanitarian Funding

Author and guest blogger Sophia Ayele discusses key lessons from Oxfam’s new report, The Indian Ocean Tsunami, 10 Years On: lessons from the response and ongoing funding challenges

Oxfam’s research report, The Indian Ocean Tsunami, 10 Years On, examines the record breaking tsunami funding response and asks why we don’t see this level and speed of response for every emergency.

In the days and weeks after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, humanitarian organisations were overwhelmed with generous donations. The UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) combined funding appeal raised a record-breaking £392m ($613m), bringing in eight times more in two months than the DEC’s Sudan appeal, which had been running for four times as long. Governments also responded generously, with 99 countries contributing to the response, including 13 that had never before made a recorded contribution to a disaster.

In all, an estimated $13.5bn in donations poured in from the international community with an unprecedented amount (roughly 40%) from private individuals and organizations – making the tsunami the highest-ever privately funded response.

Why don’t we see this type of response for every emergency?

The report draws one overarching conclusion – humanitarian funding is often based on factors other than humanitarian need.

                         Humanitarian Funding Compared with Number of People AffecteduntitledFunding data from UN FTS database Number of people affected from UN appeal documents for individual emergencies.

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Bangladesh: what went right and why were so many wrong?

Author: John Magrath


Aklima Khatun (left) sends her village’s milk on its way to the dairy by rickshaw. First stop is a
chilling centre where it will be cooled and quality-checked for its fat content before being
transported to the main dairy. 
Rachel Corner/Oxfam 2013.

In my previous blog, I reflected on how and why Bangladesh had proved so many sceptics wrong: how in the 1970s and 1980s, Western media tended to see Bangladesh as impoverished, disaster-prone, and a Malthusian catastrophe in the making. In fact, the share of people living in poverty has shrunk and food security has improved for most people. As Oxfam GB’s CEO Mark Goldring observed on a recent visit back to the country where he worked in 1991, Bangladesh has reduced poverty by more than a million people per year since 2000 and every development indicator has shown remarkable improvement, including life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality, immunisation rates and female literacy.

A particular aspect of the gloomy predictions that I remember from my school days concerned the Green Revolution, which was then much in the news. Social scientists said that rich landowners would capture the benefits of the newly developed high-yielding strains of rice because they could afford irrigation, fertilisers and machines. Therefore they would get even richer and expand their farms by taking land off small farmers, while mechanisation would cut the need for wage labour and reduce the labour force to destitution. Thus, what would happen in Bangladesh would follow the pattern set by the agricultural revolution that convulsed Britain in the 19th century.

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Bangladesh: dispelling notions of gloom

Author:  John Magrath


Joygun Islam at work with her husband Nazrul gathering chillies. Joygun is a member of the chilli producer group, and has been receiving training from Oxfam on growing and selling chillies. For her, they signify a huge change in her life over the last three years. Rachel Corner/Oxfam 2013.

When I was finishing my schooling back in – oh dear! – the 1970s, I recall writing an essay about Bangladesh, newly independent after a savage war. My memory is that I parroted the gloomy predictions common in British media at the time, that Bangladesh was a congested country prone to regular disasters and likely to be a candidate for a Malthusian catastrophe as population growth outstripped food supply.

And yet – thankfully – none of this has happened. Bangladesh today has twice as many people – now 150-plus million – but generally its population is better fed, better educated and less poor than was considered possible even 20 years ago. And what is more, the benefits of development have been spread widely; inequality has not increased. That too is remarkable because in the 1970s and 80s another assumption  was that in such a semi-feudal rural society, rich landowners would capture any rewards of development, especially the benefits of improved rice seeds, then expand their landholdings at the expense of the poor and generate a spiral of even greater inequality.

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