Will the Data Revolution Be Well-Advised?
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After weeks of consultation—and a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” public comment period—a group of expert advisors to the UN has issued a report on the “data revolution” for sustainable development.

“A World That Counts,” released in final draft on November 6, was prepared for the Secretary General’s office amid planning for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda launching in 2015, and an urgent need for data and information to support the SDG process.

The report makes recommendations for how to turn the current moment of “bigger, faster and more detailed data” into a historic development opportunity, while reducing the risk that new tools will widen the gaps “between developed and developing countries, between information-rich and information-poor people, and between the private and public sectors.”

Like most high-minded discussions about new technology, the report gives a dizzying range of definitions for its data revolution, but its aspirations and the scope of its recommendations are sound—in particular its recognition that data’s value depends on its usability and that new tools can reinforce inequality as well as reduce it.

Usability and Inclusion

The report is strongest where it seeks to ensure inclusion in the data revolution (or let’s maybe call it a transformation). It seeks standardization of data, so that government, private and citizen data producers can create a shared base of knowledge, and it recognizes the need for more granular data collection, so that marginalized groups and local communities remain visible in policy-making.

Those of us who constantly call for user-centric technology projects were gratified to see the report endorse “feedback loops between data producers, processors and users to improve the usefulness of data and information produced.” Indeed, one improvement between the draft report and the final version six days later was the use of more detailed, more thoughtful language about the non-technological barriers to data-driven knowledge. A number of commenters on the draft sought this shift and the last-minute changes suggest that our concerns were noticed:

Data needs to be generated with users in mind. Too often data providers underinvest in identifying and engaging those in a position to use data to drive action. Agencies with a mandate to collect public information are not always well-suited to ensuring their information is used by stakeholders, while civil society and the private sector could play a critical role in translating data into a form that is more readily useable. (p.15)

Underemphasizing NGOs

The document has some serious blind spots, though. Two of the biggest are its underestimation of the role of civil society and its over-reliance on the notion that citizens equipped with accurate, usable data can be successful independent agents of social change.

While the report’s authors clearly understand that the data opportunity in international development is a collaborative one where cross-sector sharing yields greater insight, the leading actor in the report’s narrative remains government, specifically the national statistical offices of developing countries. Governments are “the ultimate guarantors of the public good” through the legal systems they enforce, the report says in the section on “Data Governance and Independence.”

Meanwhile, civil society is presented primarily as an enabler for citizen advocacy, or a monitor that needs to adopt better practices for disseminating findings. Neither view gives adequate weight to the role civil society often plays steering public policy, framing social changes in public discussion, or producing new streams of data and tools for advocacy beyond simple monitoring of government actions or services.

Eleven of the 12 times the phrase “civil society” occurs in the report text, it appears as one item in a list of sectors that consume data or use it to seek accountability. Only once in the report is “civil society” mentioned on its own, though that mention is a constructive one: a late insertion that calls for “strengthening civil society’s capacity and resources to produce, use and disseminate data.”

It’s odd that the same report that credits “the tremendous efforts of many national and international organizations” with improvements in country-level MDG monitoring would gloss over the specific ways that stronger, data-savvier NGOs can continue to play a frontline role as data producers, standard-setters and engineers of cross-sector cooperation. As Samantha Custer of AidData wrote about the near-final draft of the report, regional governments, “citizens, civil society organizations and private sector companies…”

… are no longer merely consumers of information, but have their own data points to share on the quality of public service delivery and the health of their communities. … A data revolution that narrowly addresses data from national statistical offices and providers of official development assistance will miss out on these other critical pieces of information essential to collecting the dots.

Overestimating “Super-Citizens”

If the power and engagement of civil society in the data revolution is diminished by generalizations about NGOs’ role, the report’s language about regular citizens has the opposite effect, suggesting an idealized, if not unexamined, vision of a super-citizen with the ability to leap over entrenched political, economic and bureaucratic barriers using crowdsourced data, or hashtag campaigns or data APIs.

That’s so 2011. As Bill Anderson of Development Initiatives wrote Monday, the report “defaults to the broader rhetoric of citizens holding government to account. Despite its lofty intentions this argument is unrealistic.” Organized civil society, local governments, multilateral donors and individual citizens are working together to extract change at what Anderson calls “the coal face of this revolution.”

So, while we may need a second revolution to change the development boilerplate about government accountability through informed citizens, it is vital for the current data revolution, and the greater SDG agenda, to consider citizens as key components of a sustainable revolution, and not as the ultimate or exclusive participants.

In research conducted for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative in 2010, Professor Archon Fung, Hollie Russon Gilman and Jennifer Shkabatur of Harvard University argued that “the greatest opportunities for using technology exist when it is used to amplify NGO and governmental strategies of accountability.” While iconic examples of collective action by individuals yielding greater accountability through technology are “perhaps perceived as the dominant paradigm, we believe that the number of actual and potential interventions of this kind is exceedingly rare,” they wrote.

Tim Davies of the Web Foundation, who also made public comments on the draft Data Revolution report, cited Fung and several other open government experts to make similar points in this 2013 post about the difference between citizens and intermediaries.

The final report does acknowledge the importance of intermediaries (or “infomediaries”) in several places, but the nature of an intermediary’s role, and the particular strengths and capacities of citizen actors and civil society groups will need to be articulated, assessed and then supported with much more thought if all the necessary ingredients of a data ecosystem for sustainable development are to be understood.

The UN and the global development community are looking ahead to the SDGs, and open government advocates have been working to ensure they focus on good governance and transparency, both of which will increasingly depend on the data revolution.

As colleagues, practitioners and UN teams use the report in their work, it’s important to remember that most successful revolutions did not succeed based on single levers of transformation, but thanks to networks of relationships, pre-existing political and social motivations, and key alignments of interest among government, civic and private groups. The opportunities of data and open data may be new, but what counts most are the realities of how innovations do or don’t spark revolutions.