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Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Data Revolutionaries 

November 22, 2013 — By Ruth Levine

One of the inspirations for Work in Progress was the weekly email that Ruth Levine, the Program Director for our Global Development and Population program, sends to her staff each Friday. It might contain thoughts on new research related to global development and population, or an observation about how to improve our grantmaking. On the other hand, it is just as likely to offer a link to an article or a TED talk on what motivates us to be more productive in our jobs, or even just an entertaining comment on life in general. We'll publish a highlight from Ruth’s note to staff each Friday, in keeping with her practice of providing food for thought as the week winds down. Enjoy. –ed.

You can’t have a “data revolution” without data revolutionaries. And that’s just the group that came together Thursday in New York City at a meeting hosted by the UN Foundation to think through what it will take to unleash the power of better information about people’s lives.

Since the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda coined the term in their May 2013 report, the notion of a “data revolution” has captured the imagination of many.  The Panel itself had one view, with a major focus on building statistical capacity in governments. (Statistical capacity strengthening is the broccoli of development – extremely good for you but in desperate need of rebranding.)  Those initial statements of the High-Level Panel have been followed by a cacophony of voices, each with valid but distinct perspectives on the aims and methods of generating better data for development policy, and how that access to that data can be part of a broader advancement of accountability to citizens.  (For a quick overview of the diversity of opinions, check out the Data Revolution blog.)

The data revolution chatter, interesting as it is, has remained in the comfortable zone of sweeping generalizations and principled statements by leading thinkers:  Some declare that internationally comparable data, like the stuff churned out in compliance with UN Statistical Commission guidelines, is preferable to having each country make up its own measures and methods. The ability to compare across countries is key to progress. Others say information for national and local decisions must be tailored to locally relevant policy questions, and international comparability is of little value.  Most say we must harness technology (everyone has a cell phone!)  But some warn technology-enabled data collection exposes us to risks (everyone’s under surveillance!).  You get the idea.

So it was refreshing to be among data revolutionaries this week who are focused in a quite different way.  More evidence-based and less eminence-based.  The Center for Policy Dialogue, The Southern Voice Network on Post-MDG Development Goals and the North-South Institute want to move from global-level punditry to country-level reality, fast. Specifically, they are planning field work over the next several months to study the on-the-ground measurement challenges for several of the proposed post-2015 goals, and to develop recommendations for practical ways to overcome those challenges. Think tanks in several countries will work together to develop a standard methodology for understanding the opportunities and obstacles, taking advantage of their deep understanding of their own national contexts.  Along with the others at the UN Foundation convened to weigh in on the study methodology, I expect the findings they generate to be a welcome reality check.  I’m looking forward to having something new: data about how to support the data revolution.