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Data Revolution, Opinion

Better Together: A partnership for the data revolution [Part I]

Written by Molly Elgin-Cossart, Senior Fellow, New York University Center on International Cooperation.

This is the fourth post in our blog series onWhat kind of ‘data revolution’ do we need for post-2015?

Leave No One Behind

Governments across the world, from India to Kenya to Canada now have open government portals which make government development, demographic, statistical and expenditure data available to the public. Rockstar Bono has “embraced his inner nerd” and sowed the seeds of evidence-based activism (“factivism”). In his Foundation’s annual letter last year, Bill Gates made the case for measurement as a tool for development, in everything from child vaccinations to education.

Who has access to data, what data are available, and how data are used are issues gaining attention at the highest levels. This interest points to the data paradox: while more data is available than ever before, we still lack the knowledge we need about what works (and potentially more importantly, what does not) to bring about the change we want to see in the world, from the eradication of poverty to eliminating the scourge of diseases such as polio and malaria.

Data – like people – want to be free.

Now is the time for that freedom.

The data revolution is central to ensuring that in the global march towards progress and prosperity, we “Leave No One Behind”. This means an end to development by averages (measuring success based on average outcomes) and instead embracing disaggregation, to create a future in which every single person on this planet – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is able to realize universal human rights and basic economic opportunities.

Between now and September 2015, there is time to bolster political will and put into place the tools for work on this transformation to begin immediately. A data revolution could improve both the supply of statistics and the demand for it – as a tool of accountability and change.

The data revolution does not involve complex new international architecture or enormous sums of money, but it does require immediate action and sustained momentum.

What is the Data Revolution?

When we say data revolution, what do we mean? Many people have been working to improve the quality and availability of data for quite some time, and these efforts have led to significant improvements. But they are not enough. A revolution entails an entirely new approach, based on two related, overarching objectives:

1.Improved evidence-based decision-making and policies;

2.Increased transparency and accountability.

Evidence-based decision-making is coupled with the need for learning and adapting approaches to better meet the needs of the people affected by policies and programs. In other words, development is not just about doing things right…but also doing the right things.

More and more people are calling for this revolution; now this revolutionary momentum must be channeled into action, and, more importantly, impact.

Objective 1: Evidence-based policy making

The data revolution requires a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t; better quality data so that data can be shared and analyzed; filling gaps in priority areas such as vital statistics and agriculture; improving availability and quality of non-economic data, and incorporating social and environmental accounting into measures of progress. Crucially, we must make sure that the things we treasure are also the things we measure.

Groups like the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the MDGs, chaired and maintained by the UN Statistics Division, and the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (Paris21) have demonstrated the importance of statistical capacity building and sharing of data among statistical agencies, though inadequate resources have been directed towards these needs.

Justin Sandefur and Amanda Glassman have shown that improving data means aligning incentives of donors and beneficiaries, and linking data collection with accountability through verification.

Objective 2: Accountability

Most importantly, the revolution requires people. As Lawrence Haddad points out, an accountability revolution with citizen engagement is as important as the data revolution. Global civil society group CIVICUS has proposed the idea of a “Citizen Dashboard”, ONE Campaign is looking for ways to “turbocharge” development with technology and data, and AidData is looking to collect data from people on the ground, their pictures, comments, and reactions to aid and other projects.

But to turn these initial efforts into a full-scale revolution will require serious work. Building participation, engagement, and crucially, the proper institutional environment in which participation and accountability can thrive, are substantial challenges.

A Global Partnership on Development Data

As part of the call for a data revolution, there is a need for a “Global Partnership on Development Data” that brings together diverse but interested stakeholders – government statistical offices, international organizations, CSOs, foundations and the private sector. This partnership would, as a first step, develop a global strategy to fill critical gaps, expand data accessibility, and galvanize international efforts to ensure a baseline for post-2015 targets is in place by January 2016.”

The partnership must be inclusive, with leadership coming from countries themselves. In the search to replace the MDGs, national and local ownership has emerged as central. Some proposals have suggested a model of “global goals, national targets”, with country-specific targets specifying a level of ambition or speed determined in accordance with each country’s circumstances and capabilities, through an inclusive process within the country (possibly with global minimum standards on some targets to ensure sufficient ambition).

Under this model, national and local engagement and capacity will be more important than ever. In addition to country ownership, the partnership should have an explicit focus on empowering people to access, understand and use data as a tool for advocacy and change.

The partnership should seek to become an incubator for innovative solutions, in addition to a platform for sharing knowledge and ideas. It should have built-in capacity to design, develop, and adapt solutions, with a small core team but drawing upon the resources of a broad network of partners. It could be a relatively lean effort, with enough political support to have maximum impact while remaining highly flexible in its approach.

Countries – with national statistical offices acting in a coordinating role, but with input from all stakeholders – could specify their own priorities and apply for support to the partnership. Drawing on a range of stakeholders, support could take various forms:

  • financing,
  • capacity building and training,
  • adapting tools and methodologies that have worked to fit a particular country’s needs,
  • and other means to bring about the data revolution at national and local levels.

The time is ripe for such a partnership. In 2015, world leaders will decide the future of development, from the framework to replace the MDGs to a new climate treaty. With the world’s attention focused on 2015, there is a window of opportunity for the emergence of innovative partnerships to bring about solutions.


January 1st, 2016

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