How the data revolution could transform development (but might not)

Maternal health researchers at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Health. Data revolution means harnessing the potential of new technology to improve health systems. Photo by: Conor Ashleigh / AusAID / CC BY 

The Ebola crisis is a human tragedy and a testament to the importance of investing in and maintaining health systems. But it is also a critical warning that without data on health systems we can’t hope to address development challenges.

In many parts of West Africa, basic statistics on births and deaths are simply not available — or are embarrassingly out of date. Without such information, we cannot expect governments to credibly invest in health services where they are needed most.

New technology brings massive potential. For example, “call data records” from mobile phones identify where the device is and has been, along with its proximity to other devices — letting experts infer, in real-time, where and how many people there are, and where they are probably headed. Such data has been used to track and help combat malaria in Kenya and Namibia, and to identify where Haitians fled to after an earthquake and cholera outbreak in 2010.  But it also brings risks: in the Ebola case, due to complexities and legitimate concerns over privacy, legal issues and the lack of political will to make it happen, this data has not been made available to those seeking to address the crisis. Still, some data geeks are making the most of existing data sets from GIS data to media articles in order to infer behavioural patterns, relationships of trusts and the kinds of questions that really need to be addressed — rather than those we think need to be addressed.

So while the debate on the “data revolution” for development promises much, the fact that many play fast and loose with the latest buzzword is a block to moving forward. Investments in standards and partnerships that leverage the potential while mitigating the risks are required before the revolution runs ahead of any efforts to harness it for good. Thankfully, a recent report commissioned by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has brought welcome attention and clarity to the issue. Despite critique over the framing and consultation periods, this report is a significant step forward.

We now need to build on it — starting with some clarity on what we are talking about and what we aren’t:

1. We need investments in the nuts and bolts of official statistics. The debate in New York on the Sustainable Development Goals focuses on “leaving no-one behind.” But how can we achieve this when we don’t even know when and where people are born? We need investments in regular collection of data, as well as getting rid of bad data, and those that create it. ONE would love to see the announcement of a “Last Mile Fund” that focuses specifically on the hardest to reach populations and shines a light on their needs and desires.

2. We need government to prioritize open data. This means data in common formats that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone. It applies to information from governments and other institutions and shouldn’t apply to personal data. Conflating this with surveillance, the Snowden revelations and so on, is a major risk to political progress in this area. This is about shifting the power balance — but not so dodgy governments can monitor your Facebook posts.

3. We need partnerships, legal frameworks, standards and norms that make the most of “Big Data” — the use of large datasets that can be used to reveal patterns, trends and associations.

One can imagine the potential of using mobile phone data for plugging the gaps in official statistics. But there are also significant risks. Imagine how repressive regimes might use data to clamp down on dissenters or human rights activists. The data revolution cannot and will not only lead to positive changes for development — and we need to address this head on.

There is plenty of great and incredibly important work on data standards such as the G8 Open Data Charter, but this is like working on the engine, when we haven’t agreed the rules of the road. We need both for the car to be able to move and to be able to trust that when we hit the brake at a red light, others will too.

4. We need urgent investments in training. There is a big difference between access to information and impact, and many in the transparency community lose sight of this. We can’t assume that publishing tranches of data will lead to changes in behavior or policy. Supporting groups like in Nigeria that bring government spending data to life will be critical.

5. We need an extractive industries transparency initiative for data. Some experts refer to the current debate on data as the new extractive industry. We give away our personal information for commercial use, creating fortunes for others. People are not valued as creators of data who have the right to control their information and receive benefits from it. We therefore need a new initiative — a grand bargain between governments, businesses and NGOs that can get this right.

Given the desperate need for data to track the SDGs, and the massive pools of untapped potential in Africa — its young people — why don’t we create jobs, by paying people to collect data on a regular basis? This army of “factivists” would create a wealth of information for governments to use in planning, and for people to hold institutions to account. This idea has already been piloted in Nigeria. If you click here you can pick any region of Nigeria, and zoom in on a school, a clinic or a water pump to learn more about its condition and what needs to change. Investing in scaling this up across the developing could yield a double dividend — providing employment and giving us the information we need to improve public services.

It is good that the data revolution debate is now moving towards more specific ideas. But we urgently need to road test these, and then push political leaders to invest in term. If we want no one to be left behind by 2030, it isn’t good enough to wait five years before we have the information we need to even start asking the right questions.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

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

About the author

  • David McNair

    David McNair is executive director for global policy at The ONE Campaign, a movement of 9 million people fighting for an end to extreme poverty. Previously, David was policy director for transparency and accountability at ONE where he helped build a new global partnership for improving data for sustainable development, and led on agenda setting reports on anti-corruption.