A data revolution to end poverty?


This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Post2015.

Eradicating poverty by 2030 is an ambitious undertaking. Development practitioners have argued that a major impediment to achieving this objective has been the absence or deficiency of accurate, up to date data on the dynamics of poverty. This has made it difficult to design and execute effective policies and to allocate resources appropriately. A pragmatic approach would be to bring about a data revolution that can lever existing and new sources of data to shape policy and facilitate the eradication of poverty.   

Bali Communiqué of the High-Level Panel, March 28, 2013:

“Too often, development efforts have been hampered by a lack of the most basic data about the social and economic circumstances in which people live. […] We must […] take advantage of new technologies and access to open data for all people.”

The data revolution, in development discourse, aims to increase access, analysis and utilisation of information by an ecosystem of actors to improve policy and allocation of resources to help bring an end to poverty. See the 2013 High Level Panel (HLP) report on the Post 2015 Development Agenda.     

However, conceptually, the idea of the data revolution remains unresolved. It means different things to different people. For some it implies both knocking things down and building things up – an overhaul of the current system. For others, it implies empowering citizens in a fresh wave of data collection, analysis and use to ensure that information influences development policy. The phrase also calls for transparency accountability.

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Can a data revolution really build better policies and eradicate poverty?

Recently, my colleagues and I at the Development Initiatives Africa Hub convened a round table for stakeholders in East Africa, all working around the open governance – information access – poverty eradication nexus. We brainstormed over the implications of the data revolution for poverty elimination in the region. It emerged from the discussions that, in order for the data revolution to eliminate poverty, there needs to be a focus on:

  •  citizens
  • openness, transparency and accountability in government
  • capacity building for stakeholders across the data ecosystem
  • incentives for custodians of sources of data.

steve helping training

Focus more on citizens

The data revolution seeks to influence policy in order to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. However similar data initiatives in the past, such as the open data movement, have focused more on technology, numbers and infographics and less on the ultimate beneficiaries of policy action. To succeed, the data revolution must steer away from the skewed focus on the largely urban, marginal and ineffective cohort of people that has characterised the open data movement for example.  Like all other revolutions, it must build from the bottom, creating demand for information from grass root levels. This is what will spark energy and enthusiasm about increasing access to information. The data revolution must emphasise making data more relevant to the lives of ordinary people. It must strategically seek to bring ‘techies’ together with the realities of local community groups by engaging citizen representatives. Importantly, the data revolution must aim to minimise the time lag between when data is accessed and analysed, and when the outcomes of policy actions are reflected on the ground.

Emphasise the need for open, transparent and accountable government

Being the guarantor and custodian of a large proportion of development data, the state remains a prominent player in the movement towards the data revolution. However government barriers in the form of regulations, legislation or polices that have limited access to information in the past must be urgently addressed. In addition, data must be open. Thus far, the conceptualisation of the data revolution does not explicitly imply an open data revolution. The revolution must also seek out and strengthen political will, especially within existing legislative frameworks.

Enhance the capacity of stakeholders to make sense of the data

There is a strong case for capacity building for key stakeholders in the data ecosystem to be able to make sense of the numbers. As it is, there is limited capacity among ‘techies’, journalists, CSOs, government officers as well as citizen representatives to interpret the products of data analysis and to portray the implications of data on the lives of common citizens. To drive the data revolution further, sufficient capacity to link data to the day to day lives of citizens is needed. This will induce demand but also sustain momentum and participation in the data revolution.

Provide incentives to custodians of sources of data

The interests of the people in control of data sources must be at the centre of the data revolution for it to succeed. Why should they give data? What is in it for them? Most often the open data drive has failed to motivate custodians of data to freely provide data to the public. Efforts have largely involved application of punitive measures or holding government officers accountable for data. These have assumed that custodians of data are sufficiently motivated to make data available.

Ultimately, the ability of the data revolution to contribute to the ending of poverty by 2030 will depend on the ability to collect and aggregate data, and to have as many people as possible collaborating effectively to make sense of the implications of the data on the lives of poor people. The data revolution must avoid having just a select group of ‘techies’ or politicians or government officers knowing a lot about poor people and their problems without the capacity or motivation to do something about them.