Is the #globaldev sector ready to make big data work for development?

By Ma Karen Brutas 18 September 2015

A man uses a tablet GPS to navigate and record map data for Kambia District that will be used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its partners and other stakeholders involved in the Ebola response efforts in Sierra Leone. Is the international development industry ready to harness the full potential of big data? Photo by: CDC Global / CC BY

Big data has evolved from an international development buzzword to a tool that could deliver important innovations in aid effectiveness and transparency.

By cultivating an ecosystem where large volumes of data can be collected automatically and analyzed in real time, big data has provided a way for donors and aid implementers to gauge the impact of their interventions and essentially measure value for money.

At the third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, various stakeholders — from governments, international organizations, businesses and civil society — made various commitments toward unleashing a data revolution, with big data expected to play a major role.

At the U.N. Ebola Recovery Conference in New York, donors pledged billions in support of the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone’s recovery plans. But even as development partners of the three countries hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak promised large sums in new funding, the lack of data makes it unclear how much of these promises are actually “new” or just repackaged announcements of previously made commitments. Further, insufficient data made it difficult to measure whether resources were disbursed in areas that needed them the most.

“The tools we have today for tracking resources in a crisis are not fit-for-purpose,” Erin Hohlfelder, policy director for global health at the ONE Campaign, wrote in a Devex commentary. “There is no ‘one-stop-shop’ that donors, implementers and the public can use to reliably understand, measure and compare what amounts and types of resources have been pledged, what resources have been disbursed, and what gaps remain unfilled.”

This underscores big data’s largely untapped potential not just to help improve donor accountability and aid transparency but also to facilitate advances in global health, a sector which interestingly is one that seems to have benefited the most from it.

At the height of the Ebola outbreak, for instance, big data was central to epidemic tracking. Through the BioMosaic big data analytics program — which integrates demography, migration and health data — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was able to calculate where the virus is likely to spread. The program tracks International Air Transport Association flight data, Department of Homeland Security logs of passports checked at borders, and other geocoded data sets to give CDC near real-time information on the global air transportation network, enabling the health agency to identify at-risk populations. BioMosaic helped CDC coordinate its response to the virus and supported how it is working with the West African expat community to respond to and monitor new cases.

A recent Devex survey — which polled over 500 development professionals across a diverse set of sectors and regions to gauge the industry’s perception of big data — supports this trend. One key finding is that global health is seen as the sector that can benefit most from big data, as indicated by 28 percent of respondents. Education (18 percent) and governance (15 percent) come second and third.

Survey respondents identified the health sector as the one that could benefit most from big data. View the full infographic to know development professionals’ views on whether the industry is prepared to use big data.

Despite widespread optimism over big data, development professionals seem divided over the industry’s readiness to harness big data. While 49 percent of respondents believe the international development sector is somewhat prepared, 45 percent said the industry is not at all prepared to use big data. Only 6 percent of respondents — many of whom claim to have personally seen successful examples of how the industry adopted big data — are confident the international development sector is very prepared.

So why do many respondents feel the international sector isn’t ready to make big data work for development?

Devex’s survey reveals that 30 percent of the respondents are most concerned with overall availability of data. Skepticism for instance is high over the availability of reliable and updated statistics from least-developed countries, where data collection systems are weak and at times fraudulent. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, where many countries have not done a census for decades and often fail to adequately collect and store other important data.

Interested in more survey findings? Check out the full infographic.

 How ready is the development industry to use big data?

Twenty-two percent of survey respondents were also concerned about the analytical challenges that big data presents. Developing nations often lack the human and technical capacity to interpret and make sense of available data.

“Data always requires interpretation — all the data in the world is of no use if you don’t have people who understand the limitations of the data and can then come to the right decisions,” Kentaro Toyama, board chairman of nonprofit Digital Green, told Devex in a previous interview.

Data accessibility is another make-or-break challenge identified by 16 percent of respondents. Even if there is reliable and updated data, privacy and proprietary concerns prevent organizations — whether from the government, private sector or civil society — from opening up the data to the public.

But this is beginning to change.

Several major donors, including the United Kingdom and the United States, have started making their official development assistance data public. Various organizations have come together to create open platforms for data collection and analysis as well.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, intends to pour $75 million as initial investment in the creation of the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance Network. The foundation plans to set up CHAMPS sites in developing countries, where it can gather data on how, why and where children are getting sick and dying.

It is also planning to build a Global Health Analytics Platform, where data can be better pooled, understood and analyzed.

Interested in our survey and research practices? Get in touch with our Survey & Advisory Services — the Devex consulting practice that conducts brand surveys and business strategy services that leverage both the Devex network and proprietary development finance data.

About the author

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Ma Karen Brutas

Karen is a development analyst at Devex’s survey and advisory services team. She is responsible for conducting special research and consulting projects that focus on development business issues, including donor diversification, market penetration, brand awareness and fundraising strategy. Before joining Devex, Karen worked at several NGOs, where she conducted research, capacity building and policy advocacy on women’s human rights and access to justice.

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