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There’s an abundance of data available to global development leaders and practitioners, from social media and satellite imagery to sensors, survey, and usage data, that the term “data revolution” has become commonplace. But do we really know — in real time — what’s happening on the frontlines of development and aid work? Are organizations using data to improve decision-making and deliver better services?

“If we don't have data-driven decision-making in this sector, we're basically flying blind,” said Catherine Cheney, Devex senior U.S. West Coast correspondent.

“These issues are too critical and the urgency is too great. Organizations need to make it a priority to gather data on whether what they're doing is working — and then act on that information.”

Cheney — who is based in Silicon Valley and focuses on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals — will be sitting down at Devex World on June 12 in Washington, D.C., with some data revolutionaries. She’ll unpack what the data revolution means for the development and aid community; discuss the next frontier for data-driven development; and what practitioners can do to harness data for good.

We sat down with Cheney to learn more about how the data revolution will feature at Devex World. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does the idea of a data revolution relate to development work?

My role at Devex is covering the West Coast, and how individuals, organizations, and approaches here are driving the future of global development. I think the use of data is at the center of that narrative.

The disconnect that I often come up against is that, while practitioners have access to a vast amount of data — and while there’s a lot of excitement about its potential — unfortunately, the data doesn’t always drive better decision-making, and therefore, real progress.

One of the West Coast institutions I cover is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is very data driven in its approach to global health. The big message coming out of the foundation lately is that SDG progress is possible but not inevitable — but I think they might add that progress is impossible without data.

One of the things Bill, Melinda, and their team look for in data is positive outliers — the best performers — in datasets, so that we can learn from what’s working.

“Data has the capacity to drive better outcomes, but its true potential has yet to be realized in the sector.”

— Catherine Cheney, senior U.S. West Coast correspondent, Devex

There are a few broad themes I'm following when it comes to the role of data in the sector. One is the way it can transform monitoring and evaluation — basically answering the question “is this working?”

Following this, the key question is, “Does data drive better decision-making and, for example, cause an organization to pivot on something that isn't working?”

I am always on the lookout for best practices when it comes to leveraging existing sources of data, tapping into new resources the sector already has access to, and combining data from multiple sources to generate new insights.

Data literacy is becoming an increasingly critical skill for global development professionals. There’s a huge role for public-private partnerships, and the technology companies I cover are eager to play a role in this regard.

But there's also a need for people in the sector to act on the information they have access to.

One big story I've been following lately is the fallout from the Facebook public relations crisis and what it means for partnerships in the data for good realm. While the future of a lot of those partnerships may be in question —  as Facebook figures out how to improve its own privacy and security protections — its partners in global health, development, and humanitarian response are also figuring out how to navigate a defining moment in “data for good.”

Thus far, has the sector been talking enough about data and the ability to build upon what’s working?

There's certainly a lot of talk about the role of data and development, but what’s missing is turning that talk into action. For a lot of organizations, they’re still excited about the role data can play and new technologies that can unlock access to information.

But there's still a disconnect in the growing amount of data leading to more data-driven decision-making and therefore better outcomes. Our aim at Devex World is to drive conversations that help to close that gap.

I'm really excited about the speakers joining us in the data revolution discussion. One example is Lisha McCormick, chief operating officer at Last Mile Health. The NGO’s use of data not only helps community health workers in Liberia do their jobs more effectively, but also better tracks outcomes in real time, resulting in more information that can be shared with staff and funders.

Ebele Okobi, head of public policy, Africa at Facebook, will also be joining the discussion. Facebook is so widely used throughout the world and many NGOs are leveraging Facebook products for their work, whether it’s Free Basics, Whatsapp, or Messenger. Commonly called the “secretary of state of Facebook on the African continent,” I’m eager to hear about the key challenges she’s faced on sensitive issues such as privacy, how she works through them, and exactly how Facebook will develop new partnerships in high-risk areas.

In terms of tangible actions, what can participants expect to take from Devex World?

Anyone who attends the data revolution discussions will not just walk away having learned something — or with a story to share with colleagues — but rather a clear action item that will change what they do when it comes to data.

“Data literacy is becoming an increasingly critical skill for global development professionals. There’s a huge role for public-private partnerships, and the technology companies I cover are eager to play a role.”

I can't yet determine what that action item will be, but it will likely hinge on answers to these questions: “How do I, and my organization, move from excitement to action around data? How do I use data to better inform decision-making? And then, how does that decision-making lead to better outcomes?”

I also want to make sure participants walk away understanding the very real risks, from data privacy to cyber protection, and feel more prepared to counteract those risks.

Data has the capacity to drive better outcomes, but its true potential has yet to be realized in the sector. At Devex World, we're not just talking about what could happen and what should happen, but actually pointing to some of the best existing examples of navigating this data revolution — and seizing the opportunity while also acknowledging the risks.

Data-driven decision-making can drive better outcomes not only for individual organizations but also for the sector as a whole. We cannot make progress on goals as daunting as the SDGs unless we track what is working and what is not, building on the former and pivoting away from the latter.

Participants in the data revolution discussion at Devex World, let’s connect with one another and keep in touch so that we can all be more data driven in our pursuit of shared goals.

Devex World is on June 12, 2018, at the Mead Center for the American Theater in Washington, D.C. Find out more here and note that this unique event will reach full capacity.

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