Andrew Wekunda, a survey staffer in Bungoma, Kenya. Photo by: Lukas Bergstrom / CC BY

Before the global development community is plunged into a collective moment of panic, let us clarify: the survey is not dead. Or as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” fans might say, not dead yet.

For many years, the survey has been a tool of both choice and necessity for development. This has been partially driven by the high cost and specialized technical expertise required for alternative forms of data collection and visualization.

The result is that decision-making based on big data and sentiment analysis has often been the purview of senior officials at major organizations — a top-down phenomenon we sometimes refer to as “Data for Superman.”

Yet the dynamics are changing. The arrival of mobile phones and social media in drought-, disease- and conflict-afflicted areas opens up a brand new window into human behavior. Now, technologists and health professionals such as the ones at HealthMap can track the global spread of diseases such as Ebola and Zika with up to 96 percent accuracy by automatically aggregating more than 200,000 data sources, including Twitter and news reports.

On the conflict prevention front, PeaceTech Lab has launched a tracking and reporting tool called the Open Situation Room Exchange, which provides country-specific visualizations of fragility by mapping everything from protests and violence against civilians, to online news and social media trends.

PeaceTech’s Lab Open Situation Room Exchange.

In both cases, the data drawn from news aggregation and sentiment analysis is free, publicly accessible, and can serve as a valuable resource for health workers, journalists, and peace builders in the field.

Turning the corner on ‘big data’

Such tools are just the beginning when it comes to putting more localized, actionable data into the hands of humanitarians. And with “Tech for Good” headlining nearly every major conference from Stockholm to Silicon Valley, the proliferation of mobile apps, data platforms, messaging services, virtual reality, and other innovations will continue long into the foreseeable future.

This is good news for people in data-starved countries such as the Central African Republic. However, the coming wave of information poses an interesting challenge for development professionals: How do you ensure #DataDriven doesn’t become #DataDrivenCrazy?

Seeing data with new eyes

One solution is to take a step back from the feature/function conversations that often accompany new technologies in order to ask, “What information could help both my organization and our partners do our work better?”

This sounds simple, but as we have discovered in peacebuilding, pausing to reflect on such a question from both an organizational-level and local standpoint can lead to unexpected flashes of inspiration from unusual places.

Take the example of Elsa D’Silva, an aviation professional-turned-PeaceTech-entrepreneur who founded Safecity India to help women coping with sexual assault. Initially, Elsa began the crowdsourced mapping project as a simple way for women to share their stories of harassment, since many are prevented from reporting attacks out of fear of victim-blaming or retribution.

Elsa soon realized, however, that the stories emerging from the map could do more than offer emotional support for victims; they could be used to identify “hotspots” and hold local police accountable for increasing patrols and installing safety features like streetlights. Now, Safecity is active in India, Nepal, and Kenya, and provides women, local law enforcement, gender rights advocates, and peace builders with an important, free resource.

Another project taking a fresh look at data is the Everyday Peace Indicators Project, which builds upon studies in sustainable development to identify “alternative, bottom-up indicators of peace.” Citing a gap between “orthodox” measures used by governments and large NGOs and the actual experiences of communities affected by conflict, the Everyday Peace Indicators rely on focus groups (and yes, surveys!) to determine how communities judge peace for themselves.

For example, a neighborhood might report feeling more or less safe depending on the number of dog barks heard throughout the night. The “barking dog indicator,” which could indicate heightened movement of soldiers or rebel forces in conflict zones, provides one locally-significant indicator of peace that might otherwise be overlooked in a sea of big data.

The (fire)walls come down

These projects give us hope for a future where local insights are shared on a global scale, making it possible to source new ideas and inventive solutions from anyone, anywhere, at any time. This is a lot to demand from “data” — a resource that is essentially little more than a collection of 0’s and 1’s. It is a demand, however, guided by the belief that change only happens when collective insight is turned into collective action. And that, in itself, should inspire us all to be #DataDriven.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners — the Agence Française de Développement, BroadReach, Chemonics and Johnson & Johnson — will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Twila Tschan

    Twila N. Tschan is the communications coordinator at PeaceTech Lab, which works for individuals and communities affected by conflict while utilizing the best in technology, media, and data to accelerate peacebuilding efforts. A summa cum laude graduate of the University of South Alabama, Twila is currently pursuing her M.A. in global communication at George Washington University. You can contact Twila via Twitter @PeaceTechLab or email
  • Giselle Lopez

    Giselle is a specialist at PeaceTech Lab. Giselle’s work focuses on providing support for the Lab's Open Situation Room Exchange, a program designed to make data more accessible to the peacebuilding community. At PeaceTech Lab, she has also organized and served as a trainer for exchanges in Turkey, India, and Myanmar to build capacity for peacebuilding organizations to incorporate low­cost, easy­to­use technology solutions to support their efforts.