Global development's 'data intermediaries' and their critical role post-2015

A man in front of four computer monitors. Data intermediaries — people or tools that can take data and visualize it in the most useful way — will have a more important role to play in achieving the post-2015 development goals. Photo by: Cory M. Grenier / CC BY-SA

As the sustainable development agenda comes to the fore, stakeholders everywhere are gearing up for a data revolution that could be a defining catalyst for success post-2015.

The role of data and the need for better data collection systems in developing countries was a key topic of conversation at this week’s International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and will be a continuing theme as the United Nations finalizes the sustainable development goals in New York this September.

“Increased availability and more effective use of data to drive sustainable development really has the potential to be one of the game changing innovations of the next 15 years of this particular agenda,” Tony Pipa, U.S. special coordinator for the post-2015 development agenda, told Devex in the lead-up to #FFD3.

Speaking at the United Nations during a High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development side event last month, Pipa said data is “development capital” the way financial resources are financial capital and political commitment is political capital.

But just having more robust data and better data collection systems is not enough to achieve the SDGs. Data also has to be put to use — guiding implementers and civil society actors and facilitating productive changes to government policy.

Pipa predicted that during the next 15 years of global development work, there will be a growth of what he called “data intermediaries” — people or tools that can take data and visualize it in a way that is most useful for policymakers, civil society, implementers and other stakeholders.

“Data itself is many times inert,” Pipa told Devex. “It’s intellectual capital that’s sitting there waiting for its power to be unlocked.”

And unlocking the power of data is in part the role of the “data intermediary.”

The term itself is not one widely used in the realm of development or data. Steven Chapman, evidence, measurement and evaluation director at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, had not heard the term before, but to him it makes sense.

“It’s really bridging the gap between the production of research and turning it into a useful and influential output … that is the data intermediary role,” Chapman told Devex. “I think Tony Pipa was right in predicting the demand for this type of skill will grow.”

For the CIFF official, “the archetype of the data intermediary” is global health professor and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation Hans Rosling — a Swedish doctor whose entertaining and visually engaging data presentations have made him a celebrity in the global health arena.

“He’s unquestionably an intermediary,” Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told Devex. “He makes the figures come alive for people and he can illuminate topics.”

By animating data like the Swedish doctor does, “you get a much different perspective on them than you would if you’re just looking at some tables for example,” Chapman said.

But while Rosling represents an engaging data intermediary who can play a big role in putting data to use throughout the next 15 years, there’s room for many more like him. As Kolker pointed out, even the global health professor has interests and an agenda.

“The marketplace of ideas has to be very rich,” the ambassador said.

And not all data intermediaries have to be as entertaining or showy as Rosling, according to Chapman.

“I think there’s more of a day-to-day job for the data intermediary that may not be so flashy in terms of tools like he has,” he said.

Academics, consultants and “in-house” data evaluation teams can all play a critical role in “being this bridge between data and its usefulness,” the CIFF official noted.

Pipa said that the people, companies and organizations that do data intermediation well are able to “listen … and ask the right questions” as well as understand the development context and the problem that a policymaker or decision-maker is trying to solve. They take large sets of data and “distill it down into the two or three key things that someone can easily grasp.”

As far as tools go, one example that Pipa, Chapman and Kolker alluded to was a dashboard — a simplified presentation of key indicators that can be presented online or on paper.

“It seems like every organization today has a dashboard,” Chapman said. “And it’s a common currency in the data world that if you have a report often you want to turn it into a dashboard.”

Pipa gave the example of the Foreign Assistance Dashboard jointly created by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which gives a breakdown of U.S. foreign assistance by country and by category.

For Chapman, dashboards are useful because they “begin with the end in mind.” Well-prepared dashboards will begin by looking at the decision-maker and the decisions that need to be made. Then they present focused and appropriate data to meet the identified needs. Dashboards are in fact “reflective of the skills you need to be a good data intermediary,” he pointed out..

Chapman echoed Pipa’s remark that data intermediaries need to be able to listen well to a decision-maker and ask the right questions. He said these questions might include the following: “What decisions do you need to make? When will you make them? On what basis will you make them? What sort of information could we provide you that would be helpful in making that decision?”

It’s like marketing or listening to your consumer, according to the CIFF official.

Young development professionals interested in putting data to use and becoming a “data intermediary” should understand “user-centered design” and find a role model, according to Chapman.

“Someone like Jeffrey Sachs for example, or your best teacher … who can take complex ideas and simplify them and make them salient for you in some way as a student or as a user of data,” he said.

Still, while “data intermediaries” will play a critical role in the post-2015 development agenda, Chapman pointed out there are broader data quality and availability concerns facing the development community that can’t be forgotten.

“The big world that the data intermediary faces is incomplete data, poor quality data, inaccessible data,” Chapman said. “And those are huge structural challenges that go beyond I think what the data intermediary can solve.”

What do you think of the term “data intermediaries”? And how critical will they be post-2015? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Sustaining Development is a three-month online series exploring the post-2015 development agenda hosted by Devex in partnership with Chevron, FXB, Global Health Fellows Program II, Philips, UNIDO, U.N. Volunteers and the U.S. Council for International Business. We will look at the practical steps needed to move the sustainable development goals from concept to reality. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation using #SustainDev.

About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.