If you’ve been reading anything related to international development in the last year, you will have seen rich conversations around the the idea of a “data revolution”. What exactly would a data revolution look like? What would its aims be? Is it about data collection, use, analysis, all of the above, or something else entirely?
To answer these and other questions, the United Nations Secretary General recently formed an Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the “Data revolution for development”. I’m part of this group: we’ve been tasked with making recommendations on how to achieve a data revolution. We have to do it quickly - and we want to get your inputs too!
Three things I want from the Data Revolution
From my perspective, a data revolution should offer transformative changes in the way development data are created, processed, accessed and used to better the lives of people – for both current and future generations. While there are many specific issues and opportunities we can pursue, here are three ideas I personally think are important:
1) Data should be an imperative for development
At their core, modern governments are data-management organisations. Roads, schools, hospitals, power lines and water systems have long been considered the sort of infrastructure governments should focus on, but I’d argue that good public data is now just as important.
I see data as the “soft infrastructure” of development. It’s an essential function of effective public institutions. But I don’t think that goes far enough: creating, improving and managing data is one of the key drivers of change.
2) Official statistics should be transformed, by putting people first and partnering with others
I think it’s inevitable that the global development data system of the future will be built on public-private partnerships that are rooted in the idea of development data being a key global public good. And the most important non-government actors? Citizens. Improving data literacy and bringing data and statistics further into education, journalism and public debate will catalyse demand for better data and improve its use.
I’d like to see national statistical systems everywhere become centers of excellence in fulfilling their core functions as the source of official statistics. But they can also become hubs for leveraging new data and new partnerships. As our understanding and knowledge grows we can map out what kinds of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) related data are best produced by whom and from what sources; where the government, private sector, or other non-government actors are respectively better suited; where global or regional approaches with pooled resources make the best sense; and where national operations are irreplaceable.
3) Open data and continuous innovation should be part of our culture
Open Data is gradually becoming the norm in governments around the world, and the revolution in accessibility and usability that open data approaches offer is a platform for new ideas and new engagement. But while there’s been recent progress in open data, there’s been little fundamental innovation in the way most governments “do data” for the last 30 years.
There is a great opportunity to learn from successful science and technology innovation ecosystems and bring the right incentives to bear so that the private sector, the research community and the official data world can form lasting relationships that are mutually beneficial. We should also invest in understanding the economics of data “production” and “consumption” and begin to take the value of development data into account in economic analysis, so that we can advocate for investments in development data based on tangible evidence of the costs and the gains.
What do you want from the Data Revolution?
The Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) is offering a useful space for bringing this discussion together, and I hope you’ll find some time over the next 5 days to share your views and help shape the data revolution we need. We want to hear from you - the deadline for comments is October 15th. There are four consultation areas where you can comment in public, and there’s an area for private comments on the Data Revolution Group’s website: http://www.undatarevolution.org/