How can we achieve real data transparency in governance?

With the increasing push for greater transparency of government data, what can we do to foster data accuracy and transparency? Photo by: Oscar de Lama / CC BY-NC

Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created — such that 90 percent of the data in the world today have been created in the last two years. The push for greater transparency of government data is increasing, with the United States now requiring executive agencies to make open and machine-readable data the default, to promote agency efficiency and accountability, improve service delivery, and increase public trust.

Examples abound of U.S. government initiatives exhibiting the open data policy in specific sectors: Medicare publishes data on what hospitals charge for common inpatient procedures, and the Department of Education’s College Scorecard uses data on cost, graduation rate, loan default rate, and average amount borrowed to help students choose colleges.

As international development practitioners, we support interventions to strengthen the effectiveness, transparency, service delivery, and accountability of host-country governments, as well as promote conditions that increase public trust in government.

We often support activities that promote governmental creation, publication, and use of data. But what can we do to foster data accuracy and transparency? And how can we combat a perversion of government data by corrupt political parties, illicit power structures, unethical influential businesses, and others who would attempt to gain advantage by manipulating data and findings?

Check the framework

“A data fire hose can be as problematic as a data desert.”

— Peggy Ochandarena, director of monitoring, evaluation and learning at Chemonics

Legal and regulatory frameworks provide the structures that shape data collection, accessibility, and use.

Government policies should outline what types of data are shared or not shared, when data should be published, and where data will be hosted.

Donors can support policy formulation reflecting a wide range of stakeholder input from technology experts, agency personnel, sector and industry specialists and professional societies, civil society, academic and think tanks, and funding agencies. Laws can provide incentives for compliance and penalties as enforcement.

Publicly available regulations should specify data standards, fields, formats (using nonproprietary formats and codes), and accessible, searchable platforms. In Vietnam, for example, the Public Procurement Agency is accomplishing its goal of public disclosure by publishing data in an internationally accepted format and using a public-facing procurement M&E dashboard.

Check the incentives

Donors can support creation of a task force that provides recommendations for targeted reforms, as well as an independent board to review who has access to data and make exceptions to publication of data.

The recommendations of both bodies to government agencies, policymakers, and legislators should be widely published to help the public assess their true independence.

Are key data missing, or is the volume of data made available too much — with no feasible way to search, to identify the questions the data respond to, or to understand the industry lingo, abbreviations, or definitions?

Agencies can circumvent principles of data transparency by omitting lay terms that those who did not compile the data will understand or by releasing massive quantities of data; a data fire hose can be as problematic as a data desert.

Check the unintended or perverse incentives

We rely on data to be neutral and objective, but neutrality can be a mirage. When people disagree with facts or logical conclusions from facts because it calls their beliefs, values, or interests into question, they sometimes distort findings, attack the data collectors, or pressure researchers to make unsupported findings and conclusions.

Data or findings can become skewed by how terms and concepts are selected and defined, who conducts data collection (and how), whether assumptions that underlie analysis and interpretation of raw data go unexplored, use of invalid secondary data analysis, or even by failure to disaggregate.

For example, a local government that reports 65 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 14 are in school but fails to disaggregate that by sex skirts the reality for girls when only a small fraction of the percent are female.

Donors can help citizens diagnose data manipulation by identifying and publicizing researchers or critics’ conflicts of interest; examining the skill and training of researchers and critics, noting whether critics attack any data unsupportive of their positions or researchers find only evidence supporting their positions; determining whether errors or limitations of the data are relatively minor or major; assessing whether criticism of researchers is personal or done anonymously; or asking for release of data sets that give rise to findings or an industry acceptable reason for keeping data confidential.

Donors’ training can help citizen groups sort through these issues to assess the quality of data, findings and criticisms.

Government data can be a tremendous resource, helpful to businesses to stimulate economic opportunity, saving costs through secondary analysis or use, stimulating new ideas, and promoting sound policies and actions.

Citizens can better hold government accountable and demand improved service when they are armed with evidence. Donors can help by designing interventions that promote a norm where it is expected that government data is accessible and shared data is of a reasonable quality, and where perverse incentives to misuse data can be exposed.

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.

About the author

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    Peggy Ochandarena

    Peggy Ochandarena is director of the monitoring, evaluation and learning at Chemonics. In addition to developing Chemonics’ M&E policies and procedures, she has managed and provided technical assistance on international development projects in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.