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Data Revolution, Opinion

The Social Progress Index and Tackling the ‘Data Apartheid’

By Michael Green, Executive Director of the Social Progress Imperative

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

Last month, the Open Knowledge Foundation published a report which concluded that Governments around the world are not providing “enough information in an accessible form to their citizens and businesses”. They found that the index – created from the results of community-based surveys in 70 countries – did not paint a complete picture: “many countries where governments are less open” they said, were not assessed owing to a “lack of openness or a sufficiently engaged civil society” pointing out that this included an astonishing 30 countries who are members of the Open Government Partnership! The very fact that they were unable to include 30 of their own member countries on their index, specifically because of a lack of suitable data, illustrates just how urgently policy-makers need to tackle what can only be described as a data apartheid.

This problem – of how much and which data is measured and made publicly available – is related to its sister problem: how to measure the ‘progress’ of countries, particularly as they journey from developing through to developed societies.

Last month the UK Chancellor made a visit to China (the first of a number planned by the UK Government), one of the purposes of which was to entice the emerging middle classes to come to London to spend their foreign income. It begs an interesting question: should we think of China as a member of the rich ‘North’ or the poor ‘South’? The trouble is, it’s neither, and it’s the reason terms such as ‘emerging economies’ and the ‘BRICs’ have come into common vernacular – an attempt to define the way that the global poverty gap has narrowed over the last 20 years. Yet, despite this change, the North/South framing persists in the language of international development and, crucially, the way we measure the world.

This is the development data apartheid where the world has one set of statistics for poor countries – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – while rich countries compare themselves through measures created by the OECD. Middle income countries like China, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia find themselves in something of a no-man’s land: developed enough so that the MDG targets are increasingly less relevant but not rich enough to join the OECD. As a result we end up relying on the flawed measure of GDP as the only yardstick against which countries – rich and poor – can be measured.

One result of this data apartheid is that we end up looking at the world through two different lenses. The OECD, for example, produces rigorous comparative data on educational outcomes in member countries. For poorer countries we have to rely on the flawed measure of school enrolment, since there are no consistent, comparable studies of educational attainment in these non-OECD countries.

Another outcome is that crucial issues for human development in the future are going unreported (and, we fear, unaddressed) because of the lack of internationally comparable data. Mental illness, for example, carries a huge morbidity burden but there are no reliable statistics to compare the performance of all countries because mental health has never been a priority for development agencies.

This is not just an issue for statisticians and geeks. Data is a tool that helps governments, and increasingly businesses, to identify and find solutions to social problems. What we don’t measure, we won’t address.

The Social Progress Index is an effort to measure and compare the performance of countries in terms of the real things that matter to real people, not just income alone. But to do that we need reliable statistics for countries at all levels of income on things like educational attainment, shelter and housing, mental health, and violence against women, that make up social progress.

Next April we’ll be launching the second of our annual indexes. Last year we included fifty nations. In the 2014 index we plan to include both more countries and more data, but inevitably we are limited by what is actually measured. We know that data is the key that – when actors are motivated – can drive better policy, and we know that when countries are forced to compare their performance – whether that of their football team, their economic growth or their social progress, that the very act of comparison can act as a spur to improvement. The Social Progress Index is designed to act as the catalyst of this growth. As the Open Knowledge Foundation found, Governments are not providing enough data to their citizens and businesses, and that has to change.

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January 1st, 2016

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