At the Hewlett Foundation, we believe that the data revolution should be a big tent where data experts and users of all stripes come together to swap ideas and form new and interesting partnerships. And there’s one group in particular that I think could have a surprisingly important role to play within this big tent: demographers.
One reason why the data revolution is so “revolutionary” is that it gives different groups opportunities to work together, often for the first time. It’s a chance for citizens and civil society to talk to experts in health and education about what sort of data to collect, how to use what they already have, and how best to share it so they can monitor service quality. It’s a chance for data advocates to discuss with multilaterals what the norms and standards for sharing data should be. It’s a chance for holders of data about our cell phone calls to talk with statisticians in national statistics offices about how “big data” can complement official data. And it’s a chance for all of these groups to benefit from a demographer’s perspective and expertise.
Luckily, demographers have already come into the data revolution’s big tent. The first sign of this was the release of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population’s (IUSSP) Defining and Successfully Accomplishing the Data Revolution: The perspective of demographers (Ruth Levine blogged about it last October). And in the last couple weeks, I’ve seen how the demography community has been busy putting their ideas into action. At the Cartagena Data Festival, IUSSP teamed up with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network for a side event looking at the design and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators. Demographers shared the stage with experts from Open Data Watch, the UN Foundation, and PARIS21, among others. The panelists discussed what it would take to ensure the SDGs are measureable, valid, and useful, including building capacity over time. You can read more about monitoring demographic indicators for the SDGs in Stephane Helleringer’s recent report.
The very next week at the 2015 Population Association of America (PAA) annual conference, IUSSP brought the Data Revolution conversation to the broader demography community in a brainstorming session and a panel presentation. The session connected demographers and other population experts—from academia to a national statistics office to the UN Population Fund—to talk about what demographers can contribute to the data revolution. It turns out it’s quite a lot. Tom Moultrie from IUSSP and the University of Cape Town laid out three main areas where demographers can contribute: data quality, access and availability, and developing and enhancing institutional capacity.
Data quality: In one of the meetings at PAA, someone said you can’t fool a demographer (well, that’s not quite what he said, but this is a family-friendly blog). Demographers know how to interrogate data and get it to spill its secrets. This skill is going to be very important as we start using new kinds of data, like big data and citizen-generated data, and merging it with more traditional kinds like survey and census data. It’s also going to be important to know what the data is telling us (and what it isn’t) as we use more of it in decision making.
Access and availability: Opening up data so it can be used and understood by more people is an important part of the data revolution. That’s easier said than done, of course. We need people who know how to curate large amounts of data and get it in shape to be used responsibly by others, including proper levels of anonymization and metadata.
Developing and enhancing institutional capacity: Making good on the data revolution is going to involve a lot of capacity building—from measuring progress against the SDGs to rolling out civil registration and vital statistics systems to strengthening national statistical systems. This will not be done overnight and will require not only increasing the number of people across disciplines, but also ensuring that people working on these issues have a keen understanding of data and aren’t fooled by misleading information. It will also mean helping people to expand their repertoire to include new types of data.
As the data revolution moves along, and more and more people come into the big tent, the greater chance there is for unexpected relationships to develop and for us to learn something from each other. For me, it would be great if through this process we all get the phone number of a demographer or two we can call with questions—and a big data expert, and a statistical capacity-building expert, and an open data expert, and on and on. So, at the next data revolution meeting, be on the lookout for a demographer to befriend. I expect we’ll be seeing more of them.
The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development has brought all kinds of data nerds out of the woodwork. Enthusiasts are talking about the need for better data, using data to make better decisions, and how best to take advantage of all types of data, from big to small, global to hyperlocal. The Cartagena Data Festival, which took place last month, was a chance for these so-called “revolutionaries” to stop talking about what the Data Revolution could be and start planning for how to get there. Plenaries and panels brought together the best thinkers from the private sector, civil society, and government, often on the same stage, and dynamic formats such as fishbowls and ignite presentations kept things moving, while bringing in many different perspectives. (You can decide for yourself whether it lived up to Sarah Lucas’ description of it as ‘best conference of a lifetime’ by checking out the archived videos of some sessions).
Though you could have made a fortune selling "I <3 Data" shirts outside the venue, the passionate participants were also frank about the limitations of data. Many talked about how to use data responsibly and focused on how to improve usability. As Kate Higgins from CIVICUS’ DataShift project said, “Data doesn’t change the world. People change the world.”
Luckily, the Data Revolution has both data and people. And in Cartegena, it had people so serious about using data to change the world that a group of them gave up their free time to stay for an informal brainstorming session. The vision for the data ecosystem in the short and medium term that came out of that discussion included these themes:
Take collective action. There are some things we can only do together, like developing global norms, standards, and principles—to make sure data is used responsibly and that it can be open and more easily shared among the private sector, government, civil society, and researchers. Collective action means jointly identifying real world problems that data can help solve and bringing together multi-sectoral teams to solve them. It also means understanding how data ecosystems at the local, national, regional, and global levels interact and who the players are at each level.
Demonstrate impact. We need to find data champions to make the case for investing in data and for using it for decision making—and we need to build on successes in addressing problems as the glue that will hold the diverse players in the ecosystem together.
Increase access and equity. We need to increase access to data and ensure equitable access. This will require developing tools to support data use, especially for those who are not data experts.
Build trust. To be successful, the Data Revolution needs to bring together data producers and users who don’t typically work together. This requires building trust between and among these various groups: national statistics offices, big data producers, citizens and others. Importantly, trust also requires allowing for experimentation and failure to encourage learning and sharing.
The Cartagena Data Festival was a great place to get started on turning this vision into a reality, but it was only a one-off event. So how do you continue to bring this brilliant, diverse data community together? One idea, originally suggested in the UN Data Revolution Group’s A World that Counts report, is a World Forum on Sustainable Development Data—and Cartagena could be a model for it. But a World Forum should also go beyond Cartagena to:
Expand the tent even further. In addition to the amazing community that gathered in Cartagena, more people from the private sector, government policymakers, and Asian data communities should participate in future events.
Tackle real challenges. The Cartagena Data Festival started to address this with the Data Capsule session, where people rolled up their sleeves and used data to look at how public security could be enhanced in Colombia. A World Forum could be a place where data communities across geographies, sectors, and data types could come together to work on problems that we can only solve together—things like how to collect accurate survey data more quickly and cheaply; how to integrate new and traditional sources of data to get a more complete and timely understanding of development challenges; and how to build data literacy from citizens to decision makers.
Make commitments. The Data Revolution needs all of us to stand up and say how we can move it forward in our roles as individuals and institutions. This calls for tangible commitments about what data will be released, how it will be used, how privacy and other protections will be managed, and what resources will be committed.
Celebrate achievements. It’s not a choice between investing in data and investing in development. We need to invest in data for development to make better decisions and reap potential cost savings. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the Colombian Rice Growers Federation created a computer model using data on crop growth and weather patterns to advise farmers which crops to plant. In 2013 it saved farmers from wasting US$3.8 million on seeds and agricultural inputs during a drought. The Forum needs to bring this story, and many others like it, to front page news.
Stay connected. Events like the Cartagena Data Festival are always energizing. You can go for weeks afterwards on the high of meetings new people and getting new ideas. But we need to find ways to maintain the momentum between opportunities for face-to-face meetings. Whether in smaller groups that work together on focused tasks or taking advantage of technology to keep in touch, we need to go into the first World Forum with a plan for staying connected.
There are already plans underway to hold the first World Forum for Sustainable Development Data in Spring 2016. Call me a data nerd, but I, for one, cannot wait.
It’s an exciting time to be a data lover. As Rachel’s post from last week on post-2015 and the data revolution describes, if the revolution becomes a reality we will have more and better data about what’s happening in developing countries. Even better, that data will increasingly be made available to citizens so they can hold their governments accountable for delivering on promises of development. This data won’t just be a single number for the whole nation. Ideally it will be disaggregated by gender, geography, and socio-economic status so countries can better understand who is receiving services, know who’s benefiting from development, and make sure that no one is left behind. The idea that the post-2015 framework will be universal is also making people think about measurement in new ways. Countries like the United States will be asked to report on their progress towards the sustainable development goals, just like developing countries.
Local think tanks and research institutions in Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Turkey, are participating in the study to see what data is available and examine its quality. They will talk with representatives from government, civil society, academia and the media to find out what improvements need to be made in accessibility and transparency of data, as well as the potential for technology-enabled and non-traditional modes of data collection. The teams will be testing the feasibility and relevance of potential ‘zero’ (eliminating extreme poverty) or ‘global minimum standard’ targets (provide free and universal legal identifiers, such as birth registrations). They will be examining the challenges of measuring (and implementing) a universal but country-relevant post-2015 framework for data that covers the following goal areas: Poverty; Employment and Inclusive Growth; Governance and Human Rights; Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Resilience; Global Partnership for Sustainable Development; Energy and Infrastructure; and Education.
IPAR (Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale) has already started this process in Senegal. Launches of the Data Test have also been held in Bangladesh by CPD and Canada by NSI as well as other countries. The country teams met in Nairobi at the end of last month to share what they have learned so far.
Country teams will be collecting data through July, and providing updates about their findings-- we will be linking to their posts as they come out. Once the teams are done with their research, they will come together to share what they learned and draw lessons that can help inform the selection of the targets for the post-2015 framework. You (and data lovers everywhere) will be hearing a lot from them—in blog posts, In-Progress Notes, via reports and at meetings—over the course of the next year.