A bumpy road: Using data to inform policymaking

Tomohiro Hamakawa, director of strategic initiatives at Kopernik speaks during the Data Innovation for Policy Makers international conference in Bali, Indonesia. Using data to inform policy decisions is a no-brainer, but is easier said than done. Photo by: Jenny Ravelo / Devex

Using data to inform policy decisions in developing countries may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s easier said than done, and the experience of some nations shows that the road to making it happen can certainly be a bumpy one, full of uncertainty and surprises.

Take the case of South Korea, considered a roaring success story in global development after turning from aid recipient to emerging donor in just a few decades.

A year ago, the mayor of Seoul, the country’s capital, was mulling over how to respond to citizen demands to set up a late-night bus service to fill the public transportation gap when the subway was closed between midnight and 5 a.m. Since drivers had to be paid double their daytime salary, the city only had budget to cover nine routes.

The city government then decided to dig into the data, and asked local telecommunications provider KT Corp. to share 3 billion monthly call data to figure out which routes would be used by most passengers. Seoul was divided into 1,200 segments covering 500 meters each, and certain areas were prioritized based on the data analysis from the volume of activity, cross-referenced with billing addresses for the likely destinations.

“Every person registers a billing address when they signed up, so we assumed that billing address is [also] the destination of each passenger,” Ki-byoung Kim, director of the Information Systems Division at the Seoul Metropolitan Government, told Devex during last week’s data innovation conference organized by Pulse Lab Jakarta in Bali, Indonesia.

The data allowed Kim’s team to chart those routes that would be most used by passengers at night. Although some residents complained the routes were not the same as the daytime ones, ultimately the data was able to convince the city government this was the most efficient setup.

Having the right data and using it well, however, is not always enough to win popular support for a particular policy decision.

The challenge of building trust

The South African government is currently piloting a national insurance scheme to make sure all citizens have access to proper health care across the country.

More than 20 years after the late Nelson Mandela promised free health care for pregnant women and children under the age of 6 just months after becoming South Africa’s first post-apartheid president in 1994, the structure was finally piloted in 2011.

One of the reasons for the delay was lack of unified, accessible data that the government could tap into to inform its actions, according to Harsha Dayal, research manager at the South African Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, who explained that three years ago they had no idea just how many public and private health service providers were out there, what kind of care they provide, and where they were located.

“We need to know who and where are they available, and if they are willing to be part of the national health insurance, which the government wants to establish,” Dayal, who was at that time a researcher at the country’s Human Sciences Research Council, told Devex.

Since the government didn’t have a single database with all the health service providers and there was so much data distributed among different stakeholders, Dayal and her team decided to create a single database pooling information from different government departments from national to municipal level, private health service providers and the Council of Health Professionals’ records of licensed medical practitioners.

It wasn’t easy and took quite some time to persuade all of them to share the information, and even when they did get the data, it had to be reformatted to become comparable. Once this was accomplished, the researchers traveled throughout the country to confirm the information at district level and categorize each health care provider into primary, secondary and tertiary, determine who they were serving and any delivery challenges.

The whole process to start the pilot program took a year and a half, and even today Dayal said they still face challenges from certain private health service providers and taxpayers that are against the scheme.

Not only South Africa had a hard time getting everyone to share data — Indonesia had the same problem too, and so tried a different and innovative approach.

The importance of citizen feedback

In the era of “big data,” one country that has mastered the power of modern technology to address development challenges is Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago and fourth most populous nation.

Devex learned in Bali how homegrown development programs are using for instance open source digital mapping to combat rampant deforestation or crowdfunding to distribute low-cost technologies such as water filters to local nongovernmental organizations.

Likewise, Indonesia is crazy about social media and has the fastest-growing number of Facebook users in the world, which the government is using to encourage the country’s growing middle class — which stands at 74 million today and is expected to reach 141 million by 2020 — to sign up to the planned national health insurance scheme.

The government wanted to tap into call data to determine how much this population group can actually afford to pay for health services through analyzing “patterns” from phone records, but there appears to be concerns among local telecommunications firms in sharing such information that may jeopardize the privacy and security of their subscribers. So their option: social media.

Vivi Yulaswati, director of social protection and welfare at the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning, explained they are combing Facebook, Twitter and blogs to get a better idea of how the Indonesian middle class views the government’s health insurance scheme, and whether or not they would be willing to sign up.

“We want to know what their complaints are [in using] government services, and [what keeps them from accepting] the health insurance,” she told Devex.

The data collection process in this case is far from being finished, and it’s unclear how much information from social media will actually inform the final government report, but the approach does underscore the importance of citizen feedback, which Yulaswati said could help them determine whether their target population group would be amenable to incentives like a buy-one-take-one approach or six-months free plan to register for the national health insurance initiative.

Do you know any other lessons learned on using data to better inform policymaking in developing countries? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.