Traditional vs. citizen-generated data: Is it a case of either-or?

A woman conducts a household survey in India. The development community is only now beginning to unlock the many opportunities presented by big data, but already a dichotomy has emerged between traditional and citizen-generated data. Photo by: Dana Schmidt / CC BY-NC-SA

The data revolution isn’t just about the quantity of information or the speed with which it can be accessed. Some of the most exciting developments pertain to citizen engagement, according to Elizabeth Stuart, a research fellow for the Overseas Development Institute.

The development community is only now beginning to unlock the many opportunities presented by big data, but already a dichotomy has emerged, with traditional census and survey data on one side and community-owned citizen engagement through platforms like SMS, phone calls, sensors or social media on the other.

Whether there's room for both — and whether the development community can find ways for both sides of the big data equation to complement each other — has been a key point of contention at the Data Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, this week.

Other conclusions are less subject to debate: Large data gaps remain, and new data methods might be the answer to help close them.

“Governments do not adequately know their own people,” Stuart told Devex Tuesday at the conference.

Official enrollment data may overstate the numbers of children in school at the appropriate age, for example, and over two-thirds of the countries that account for more than 95 percent of all maternal, newborn and child deaths do not have birth and death registries, according to data from the U.N. Interagency Group for Child Mortality. Women, persons with disabilities and those who are mentally ill remain the least represented — if they are represented at all — in official data.

The fix to these issues is not to point fingers at traditional methods, said Sam Clark, associate professor at the University of Washington, but to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses.

While traditional census and household surveys are hugely important benchmarks for comparing large populations, they're also expensive and rarely performed more than every few years. Social media, cellphone call metadata and “data exhaust,” on the other hand, can provide real-time rapid assessment, are potentially easier to access and usually cost much less. But these technologies, too, can miss vulnerable populations and aren’t designed to draw conclusions about a specific population, Clark said.

Citizen-generated data and political buy-in

Monitoring of the Millenium Development Goals almost always relied on official — sometimes outdated — data, according to Civicus Secretary-General and CEO Danny Sriskandarajah.

If the sustainable development goals intended to replace them are going to include a more robust commitment to accountability, then the global development community has a responsibility to monitor progress in more sophisticated ways, by moving to “a government-to-citizen accountability rather than government-to-government review mechanism,” he said.

A variety of nontraditional, citizen-generated data collection mechanisms are already in use, and these can serve as sources of knowledge to aggregate people's views and assist decision-makers in adopting new solutions.

Stuart pointed to a case in Mumbai, India, where the state government wanted to expand the rail and road network, which would necessitate the resettlement of 18,000 families — a politically fraught undertaking, especially when World Bank funding is involved. To gain community buy-in, the government asked the slum dweller’s association to survey every dwelling, then used the information to negotiate with the bank and the government. By 2008, all families had been voluntarily resettled and these baseline data had been accepted as official data.

Community engagement data collection methods have also informed global goal setting. My World, a global survey conducted by the United Nations, received 7 million votes — many of them offline — by asking people to choose the six issues that mattered most to them. The results of those surveys were handed to the U.N. High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. And Civicus’ multistakeholder, demand-driven initiative, called DataShift, seeks to build the capacity and confidence of civil society organizations to generate and use data to monitor development progress.

Examples of increased citizen engagement and excitement about the use of data are many, although Stu Solomon, program manager for the Global Network of Civil Society Organizations for Disaster Reduction, warned of the need for responsible use of citizen-led data if it’s to be adopted at a policy level.

“It can’t just be: ‘You’re not doing this right,’ it has to be useful and valuable to the people and policymakers,” he said. “If we want to get it more integrated, we need to make sure it’s more than saying: ‘You left these people behind.’”

When presented in a useful form, data can undergird the efficacy of the sustainable development goals: ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable benefit from development initiatives. The key, according to Clark, will be in the interoperability of both types of data, a point echoed by several attendees.

“We want to keep all traditional data sources, not substitute or replace them,” said Edilberto Loaiza, senior monitoring and evaluation adviser for the U.N. Population Fund. “We should be able to complement them with nontraditional data sources or methods while using the same principles and standards guiding the old ones.”

To do this on a large scale will require the creation of intermediate data forms and a new suite of statistical methods to determine what each kind of data means in relation to another  —  no small task, according to Clark.

So is traditional vs. citizen-generated data a case of either-or, or can we tap the strengths of each and analyze their findings in conversation with one another? In Cartagena, that’s the conversation that’s happening now.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers has worked as an Associate Editor and Southeast Asia Correspondent for Devex, with a particular focus on gender. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has reported from more than 20 countries.