Opinion: Is anyone listening? The problem with the data revolution

Graphs on a tablet. Photo by: Burak Kebapci

Last week, stattos and data wonks descended on Cape Town for the first World Data Forum. They were there to formally inaugurate the “data revolution” that everyone acknowledges will be needed to track the world’s progress toward our Sustainable Development Goals.

Setting these indicators was a long and laborious task. (I was involved only tangentially, as manager of a team of advocates at Save the Children). At one point some hoped that, by some miracle, there might be fewer indicators than targets!

But it was not to be. We now have 230 indicators to track the 169 targets of the 17 goals.

And of these 230 indicators, only four at a push require asking people for their opinions. (I’ve just rechecked that number, but it does depend somewhat on interpretation).

How do you feel about your life? Your job prospects? Your security? Do you think people in power are being held accountable? Is your government listening to you? Is anyone listening to you!? Are you happier? What spending would you prioritize given our limited resources?

All these things are important. They are the fundamental stuff of human progress. None of these questions will be asked as part of the formal tracking process of the SDGs.

“If we are going to persuade hard-nosed budget-holders and decisions-makers of the importance of investing in perceptions data, we are going to need something more concrete.”

That is a problem. It’s a gaping hole at the heart of the 2030 sustainable development agenda.

Listening to people is important. That is such an obvious statement it seems hardly worth repeating, except given the context I’ve just described. So let’s explore why subjective perceptions data matters as much as objective, “factual” data.

It matters for two reasons. First, and importantly, it matters for its own sake. To listen to someone is to respect them. History is full of things done to people rather than with them, and that is as true of international development as any other field, perhaps more so.

There is a brilliant book called “Time to Listen” by Dayna Brown and others, funded by USAID. They carried out interviews of aid beneficiaries across the world and the message they received was strikingly similar regardless of geography: (paraphrasing) “We are grateful for your efforts to help us, but we felt that we weren’t treated as equals, we weren’t listened to. While there may have been some benefit to us materially, it came at the cost of our dignity.”

Listening bestows dignity. But that is not the only reason it matters. And — if I’m honest, if we are going to persuade hard-nosed budget-holders and decisions-makers of the importance of investing in perceptions data — we are going to need something more concrete.

Listening leads to better results. One of the most famous phrases of 2016 in the U.K. was from a government minister, Michael Gove, arguing for the U.K. to exit the European Union, who said, “Britain has had enough of experts.” You can see the interview here.

via YouTube

Many in the establishment have seen this as an attack on the very fabric of society, on fact, on data, on evidence. But actually, Gove was voicing, perhaps clumsily, what many people have told me all over the world for as long as I’ve been working in this field — (paraphrasing again): “The people telling us what is best for us are not always right, they often live in their own worlds quite separate from ours. The graphs and statistics they bombard us with tell a story we don’t recognize. In short, we are the experts on our own lives, our own communities, our own families. Not them.”

If there is one thing 2016 taught us — certainly in the U.K. and the U.S., where major votes did not go as most people expected — it’s that the breach between the views of the establishment and the view from the street has perhaps never been starker. And that cannot be healthy.

In rebalancing the data revolution, we should not romanticize the wisdom of crowds. As Ipsos’ Perils of Perception series has demonstrated again recently, there are many issues where general perceptions cannot be entirely trusted. In our recent survey, people all over the world got it wrong on the size of the Muslim community in their country, levels of wealth inequality, and the level of hostility toward homosexuality and abortion.

In an ideal world there would be no disconnect between objective and subjective data. In the real world there is. Sometimes that’s because people are misdirected by media campaigns and miseducation. And sometimes it is because people’s perceptions offer a valuable counterpoint to the “reality” being communicated by official statistics.

And you don’t overcome this problem by just shouting louder, or even making ever funkier presentations. You overcome it by engaging, by building together, by realizing that objective data is not the only truth. That people’s perceptions of the world are their reality, to be listened to or to be questioned, but never to be ignored. When policymakers don’t know what people are thinking, problems are just around the corner. When they do, creative solutions can be found to apparently intractable problems.

At Ipsos we are launching a new global Sustainable Development Research Centre, which I will be directing. It has three aims: to make international cooperation more effective, to help companies become more sustainable, and to put people’s voices at the heart of sustainable development. The launch will take place in London in early February and we are asking: Who cares what you think? Do people's voices matter for sustainable development?

Let me be clear: At Ipsos, we gather objective data and it is a vital part of our work, a critical foundation for sustainable development. But we want to play a role in bringing people’s voices to the table as well. We want the whole range of evidence to be available when policy is made.

Some call it social accountability. But as the data revolution celebrates its first proper birthday at the World Data Forum this week, I say it’s time also for a listening revolution.

Listening is what Ipsos does best. And for us that great SDG slogan “Leave No-one Behind” means one thing: Leave no voice unheard…

For more reading see this useful background paper by the Overseas Development Institute.

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

About the author

  • Jonathan Glennie

    Jonathan Glennie is a senior fellow at the Joep Lange Institute and was recently a visiting fellow at the International Development Institute at King’s College London. He has held senior positions in several international organizations (including Save the Children, ODI, Christian Aid) and was director of the Sustainable Development Research Centre at Ipsos Mori. He has written regularly for The Guardian‘s Global Development website and is the author of "The Trouble with Aid: Why Less Could Mean More for Africa" and "Aid, Growth and Poverty."