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Is a Data Revolution under way, and if so, who will benefit?

Duncan Green's picture

RicardoFuentesNieva croppedGuest post from the beach big Data Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, by Oxfam’s Head of Research and paid up member of the numerati, Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes)

A spectre is haunting the hallways of the international bureaucracy and national statistical offices – the spectre of the data revolution.  Now, that might suggest a contradiction in terms or the butt of a joke – it’s hard to imagine a platoon of bespectacled statisticians with laptops and GIS devices toppling governments. But something important is indeed happening – let me try and convince you.

A new research report by ODI  “Data Revolution – Finding The Missing Million”  (launched yesterday in Cartagena during a Data Festival) tries to make sense of the coming data revolution, and what it means for international development. According to the authors: The data revolution is “an explosion in the volume of data, the speed with which data are produced, the number of producers of data, the dissemination of data, and the range of things on which there are data, coming from new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet of things and from other sources, such as qualitative data, citizen-generated data and perceptions data.”

For the numerically minded (I proudly include myself in this group) this is a rather welcome transformation. Data, data everywhere – but then why haven’t we, number geeks, solved all of the world’s problems yet?
 

Quote of the Week: Janan Ganesh

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Flags fly in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York City"All zones of public discourse have their excesses and irrationalities, but none like foreign policy. In our golden age of data, this is one area that remains resiliently unmeasurable. So anyone can say anything as long as they say it sonorously and use the word “strategy” a lot."
 
- Janan Ganesh, a political columnist for the Financial Times. Previously, he was a political correspondent for The Economist. He appears weekly on BBC1's Sunday Politics television show and wrote a biography of George Osborne, the UK chancellor.
 

Building evidence-informed policy networks in Africa

Paromita Mukhopadhyay's picture

Evidence-informed policymaking is gaining importance in several African countries. Networks of researchers and policymakers in Malawi, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Benin and Zimbabwe are working assiduously to ensure credible evidence reaches government officials in time and are also building the capacity of policymakers to use the evidence effectively. The Africa Evidence Network (AEN) is one such body working with governments in South Africa and Malawi. It held its first colloquium in November 2014 in Johannesburg.  



Africa Evidence Network, the beginning

A network of over 300 policymakers, researchers and practitioners, AEN is now emerging as a regional body in its own right. The network began in December 2012 with a meeting of 20 African representatives at 3ie’s Dhaka Colloquium of Systematic Reviews in International Development.

Buffet of Champions: What Kind Do We Need for Impact Evaluations and Policy?

Heather Lanthorn's picture
I realize that the thesis of “we may need a new kind of champion” sounds like a rather anemic pitch for Guardians of the Galaxy. Moreover, it may lead to inflated hopes that I am going to propose that dance-offs be used more often to decide policy questions. While I don’t necessarily deny that this is a fantastic idea (and would certainly boost c-span viewership), I want to quickly dash hopes that this is the main premise of this post. Rather, I am curious why “we” believe that policy champions will be keen on promoting and using impact evaluation (and subsequent evidence syntheses of these) and to suggest that another range of actors, which I call “evidence” and “issue” champions may be more natural allies. There has been a recurring storyline in recent literature and musings on (impact) evaluation and policy- or decision-making:
  • First, the aspiration: the general desire of researchers (and others) to see more evidence used in decision-making (let’s say both judgment and learning) related to aid and development so that scarce resources are allocated more wisely and/or so that more resources are brought to bear on the problem.
  • Second, the dashed hopes: the realization that data and evidence currently play a limited role in decision-making (see, for example, the report, “What is the evidence on evidence-informed policy-making”, as well as here).
  • Third, the new hope: the recognition that “policy champions” (also “policy entrepreneurs” and “policy opportunists”) may be a bridge between the two.
  • Fourth, the new plan of attack: bring “policy champions” and other stakeholders in to the research process much earlier in order to get up-take of evaluation results into the debates and decisions. This even includes bringing policy champions (say, bureaucrats) on as research PIs.

There seems to be a sleight of hand at work in the above formulation, and it is somewhat worrying in terms of equipoise and the possible use of the range of results that can emerge from an impact evaluation study. Said another way, it seems potentially at odds with the idea that the answer to an evaluation is unknown at the start of the evaluation.

#1 from 2014: Anecdotes and Simple Observations are Dangerous; Words and Narratives are Not

Heather Lanthorn's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2014.
This post was originally posted on January 23, 2014

 

In a recent blog post on stories, and following some themes from an earlier talk by Tyler Cowen, David Evans ends by suggesting: “Vivid and touching tales move us more than statistics. So let’s listen to some stories… then let’s look at some hard data and rigorous analysis before we make any big decisions.” Stories, in this sense, are potentially idiosyncratic and over-simplified and, therefore, may be misleading as well as moving. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous situation.

However, there are a couple things that are frustrating about the above quote, intentional or not.

  • First, it equates ‘hard data’ with ‘statistics,’ as though qualitative (text/word) data cannot be hard (or, by implication, rigorously analysed). Qualitative twork – even when producing ‘stories’ – should move beyond mere anecdote (or even journalistic inquiry).
  • Second, it suggests that the main role of stories (words) is to dress up and humanize statistics – or, at best, to generate hypotheses for future research. This seems both unfair and out-of-step with increasing calls for mixed-methods to take our understanding beyond ‘what works’ (average treatment effects) to ‘why’ (causal mechanisms) – with ‘why’ probably being fairly crucial to ‘decision-making’ (Paluck’s piece worth checking out in this regard).

In this post, I try to make the case that there are important potential distinctions between anecdotes and stories/narratives that are too often overlooked when discussing qualitative data, focusing on representativeness and the counterfactual. Second, I suggest that just because many researchers do not collect or analyse qualitative work rigorously does not mean it cannot (or should not) be done this way. Third, I make a few remarks about numbers.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Illicit financial flows growing faster than global economy, reveals new report
The Guardian
$991.2bn was funneled out of developing and emerging economies through crime, corruption and tax evasion in 2012 alone, according to the latest report by the Washington-based group, Global Financial Integrity (GFI), published on Monday.  The report finds that, despite growing awareness, developing countries lose more money through illicit financial flows (IFF) than they gain through aid and foreign direct investment. And IFFs are continuing to grow at an alarming rate – 9.4% a year. That’s twice as fast as global GDP growth over the same period. Though China tops the list of affected countries in terms of the total sum of money lost, as a percentage of the economy, sub-Saharan Africa was the worst affected region as illicit outflows there average 5.5% of GDP.
 
Development’s New Best Friend: the Global Security Complex
International Relations and Security Network
The United Nations’ blueprints for the upcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reveal an interesting trend. Whereas the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused exclusively on development initiatives, the SDGs look set to interweave security into what was once solely a development sphere with the inclusion of objectives that seek to secure supply chains, end poaching and protect infrastructure. This shift reflects lessons learned from 15 years of implementing the MDGs and, even more so, broader global trends to integrate security and development initiatives.

Media (R)evolutions: Mobile Technology Leads New Digital Economy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

Throughout 2014, People, Spaces, Deliberation has focused attention on the rising importance of mobile phones, cloud computing, data and business intelligence, and social media. These megatrends have dominated the technology and communications landscapes and promise to do so in the future as well.

Executives— in both the public and private spheres— are taking note of these megatrends. When asked, “Which do you believe will have the greatest positive impact on your business over the next five years?” survey respondents of a global report, Digital Megatrends 2015, from Oxford Economics gave the following answers. 



Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture
 
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
 
2014 Corruption Perceptions Index
Transparency International
Poorly equipped schools, counterfeit medicine and elections decided by money are just some of the consequences of public sector corruption. Bribes and backroom deals don’t just steal resources from the most vulnerable – they undermine justice and economic development, and destroy public trust in government and leaders. Based on expert opinion from around the world, the Corruption Perceptions Index measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption worldwide, and it paints an alarming picture. Not one single country gets a perfect score and more than two-thirds score below 50, on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
 
The Fall of Facebook
The Atlantic
Facebook has won this round of the Internet.  Steadily, grindingly, it continues to take an ever greater share of our time and attention online. More than 800 million people use the site on an average day. Individuals are dependent on it to keep up not just with their friends but with their families. When a research company looked at how people use their phones, it found that they spend more time on Facebook than they do browsing the entire rest of the Web.  Digital-media companies have grown reliant on Facebook’s powerful distribution capabilities. They are piglets at the sow, squealing amongst their siblings for sustenance, by which I mean readers.

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

 
The Challenge Of Connecting The Unconnected
TechCrunch
Every time we return to or sign up for an Internet service (e.g. Facebook, Google, Gmail, YouTube, etc.), we rely on what UX experts call a “mental model” for navigating through the choices. A mental model is essentially a person’s intuition of how something works based on past knowledge, similar experiences and common sense. So even when something is new, mental models help to make sense of it, utilizing the human brain’s ability to transcode knowledge and recognize patterns. For instance, most of our grandparents can hit the ground running with changing the channel or increasing the volume when handed the remote control for the latest television available in the market today, squarely because of a well-developed mental model for TV remote control units. But our grandparents may not have the same level of success when using Internet services, smartphones or tablets. Under-developed mental models in these domains are their primary obstacles

Beyond Magic Bullets in Governance Reform
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Domestic reformers and external donors have invested enormous energy and resources into improving governance in developing countries since the 1990s. Yet there is still remarkably little understanding of how governance progress actually occurs in these contexts. Reform strategies that work well in some places often prove disappointing elsewhere. A close examination of governance successes in the developing world indicates that effective advocacy must move beyond a search for single-focus “magic bullet” solutions toward an integrated approach that recognizes multiple interrelated drivers of governance change.
 

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Aid Transparency Index 2014
Publish What You Fund
The 2014 ATI results follow the trends observed in previous years. A lead group of organisations are making significant and continuous improvements to the information they publish on their current aid activities – and many others have taken steps towards improving their publication in 2014 – but the majority have not made significant progress and continue to lag behind.
 
12 ways to communicate development more effectively
The Guardian
From fundraising to behaviour change, communications is key to development work. Our panel explain how to do it better. Sina Odugbemi, senior communications officer (policy), World Bank, Washington DC, USA, @WorldBank:

  • Make a case for development spending: Polls in Europe consistently show that support for development is wide but shallow. This is due to the limited power of emotive campaigns. People need to know if any of their money is doing permanent good or whether the cynics are right. That kind of case-making is, sadly, not done consistently and rigorously.
  • Avoid promoting quick fixes: What that does is provoke disillusionment down the road. We need to discourage young people particularly from thinking complex problems can be solved with a rush of energy and cool new tools. We need to be communicating that many tough challenges will require stamina and sustained effort and commitment.

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