4:32 pm - Thursday September 25, 0358

From development information to a data revolution

True development geeks will know that Oct. 24 is World Development Information Day.

Since 1972 the United Nations has been urging us all to raise awareness of development challenges. Four decades on and after a call for a “data revolution” in development by the U.N. High-Level Panel on Post-2015 and the creation of an Independent Expert Advisory Group to lead this revolution, the issue of development information is squarely back on the agenda.

But over these years, a very important transformation has taken place. In 1972, the U.N. General Assembly felt “improving the dissemination of information and the mobilization of public opinion, particularly among young people, would lead to greater awareness of the problems of development.”

Ahsan Habib Sarder conducts door-to-door survey for CARE to gather data that would help farmers in Bangladesh double their daily-related incomes. Data and information can be a transformative part of the development process. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Today, after dramatic developments in information and communication technologies, talking of one-way “dissemination” seems antiquated, if not a little patronizing. Instead, we have unprecedented opportunities for people to engage in two-way or indeed many-to-many conversations, and for data and information itself to be a transformative part of the development process.

The clearest demonstration of this transformative potential lies in the ability of ordinary citizens to collect, curate and use data to make holders of power accountable. There a plenty of examples of innovation on this front.

In India, www.ipaidabribe.com is crowdsourcing citizen reports of corruption via free phone calls, mobile apps and the Internet. This has created new data to show policymakers about the prevalence of bribery in India and also a new map of citizen-reported data. Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a network of community-based organizations representing the urban poor in 33 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America, works with whole communities to count households, map settlements, and survey at the household level to develop a detailed socio-economic profile of the settlement, thereby making these underprivileged groups become active partners in their own development.

The Participate “knowledge from the margins” initiative and the Initiative for Equality’s field hearings are two primary examples in which samples of the poorest and most marginalized sectors of society — likely to be missed by traditional indicators — have been directly asked about their needs and priorities.

Approaches of this kind could serve as an important model for scaled up methods used to acquire qualitative data on development — not just for the sake of collecting data but also for empowering people in the process.

While greater and more accurate information is of course welcome, the data revolution risks being a missed opportunity if it fails to directly engage and empower people. What we should focus on, therefore, is improving the quality and accessibility of data most relevant to people’s lives, and equipping them with the information to hold decision-makers to account.

This is why we at CIVICUS launched the Big Development DataShift as a voluntary initiative at this year’s first High-Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in Mexico City. Our aim is simple: Build the capacity and confidence of citizens and civil society to generate and use data to monitor development progress.

Right now, the vast majority of civil society organizations do not use the tools and techniques required to tap into the potential of the data revolution. Building this capacity will require a heavy lift, but it is essential — not just to create the demand for the vast amounts of data being opened up but also to encourage them to become more active players in generating data.

Development contexts are complex, but a bottom-up approach puts citizens at the center of sustainable development. The needs, interests and experiences of individuals and communities will reveal the most telling insights about development progress or lack thereof.

So, today, as you celebrate World Development Information Day, please bear in mind what more we need to do to realize the true emancipatory potential of information and data in the development process. Let’s make this data revolution truly revolutionary.