How can we be better at data for development?

Last week I attended a data for development event with the ICT4D community here in London. It was a very thought-provoking evening with some great examples of how data is collected and used in a development or humanitarian context.

Data – one of development’s toughest challenges

When I hear about data for development, my first thought is about the lack of data and how many projects have been and are still undertaken without rigorous monitoring and evaluation (M&E). This may seem absurd as M&E is the only way to know whether an intervention was at all worth the effort and money invested in it. You could end up spending tens of thousands with little, or worse, negative impact, and never know about it.

However, collecting data isn’t easy. More than that it can be bloody expensive. If you want to undertake rigorous research, with a large enough sample size with qualified researchers, you’re going to need deep pockets. If you’re planning an intervention, a rigorous study can cost between 1/3 to 1/2 of the actual intervention.

With the increased pressure on charities to use every single pound for the beneficiary, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, needing to negotiate hard for M&E lines in their grant budget and still having to prove impact.

Business development – as in applying for funding – requires data as well. Forget about writing a grant application without some data about how your beneficiaries need the intervention. It doesn’t matter how well you know the on-the-ground situation, percentages just look good and will convince people in suits.

This paradox of spending on impact vs spending on proving the impact is probably one of the toughest challenges the development sector faces to become an efficient and effective enterprise to improve human life.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as really what we need to do is to make it easier to gather data, to share data between organisations, and to make sense of that data, and all that in a respectful and ethical way. The organisations present at the event were doing just that.

Be better at gathering data

There is the question of quality: In his presentation Simon Johnson from Humanitarian Data Exchange talked about the inconsistency of data gathered, especially in humanitarian emergencies, where data is collected in such a rush that the quality of the data is of secondary concern. Digital tools that spell-check and ensure that all fields on a survey are filled, enable to us to improve data quality.

Then there is a the question of cost: Face-to-face interviews for example are a costly process, that requires large budgets, often only available to the larger iNGOs. An increasing trend however, is to use digital tools to make data collection easier. This can start from using tablets to record interviews and surveys, to mobile polling, such as UNICEF’s uReport initiative. While these may reduce costs, this can open question of representation as highlighted by Amy O’Donnell from Oxfam. uReport got an overwhelming amount of responses to mobile surveys they ran in Uganda, yet they later found that majority came from educated, urban males.

However, as mobile phones are becoming more prevalent the representation question can start to be addressed. Yan Naung Oak from Phandeeyar (Myanmar) spoke about how the number of SIM cards owned has surpassed the total population of the country, as mobile phones have transformed the way people interact with each other.

Making data collection easier is a question of making it easier to reach people or even objects (e.g. pumps) we want to collect data from without compromising the scientific rigour of the study.

Be better at sharing data

The data collected by an organisation can be useful to other organisations, be it in the context of a humanitarian emergency where organisations have to coordinate quickly, or if it’s for small NGOs to have access to data about their beneficiaries, so that they can apply for funding and design an intervention that matters.

Mor Rubinstein from Open Knowledge International spoke about the Global Open Data Index, for which OKI encourages civil society across the world to share data about their governments’ transparency on a wide range of issues. OKI then collates the data  to create the Global Open Data Index. By putting countries into a ranking, they enable national lobby groups to reach out to the competitive nature of the government to be better at transparency.

BBC Media Action on the other hand used the results from their extensive M&E research on a variety of projects on resilience, governance, and media to create a portal for other organisations to access the data. These organisations can now use this data to inform their project design and their funding application. The data portal answers questions like ‘Are rural Kenyans interested in politics? Do Palestinian women trust the media?’.

A third example showcased at the event is Humanitarian Data Exchange. It is an online platform that allows organisations to upload and share data, particularly for humanitarian crises. So far, they have over 4.5K data sets from over 200 locations. More than providing a platform, they have also developed HXL – a language, as a code framework using hashtags, that allows them to compare and compile different data sets. The basic introduction to HXL even fits on a postcard.

Sharing data isn’t just about making it available for download – especially in unreadable format (e.g. scanned PDFs). It’s about giving others the ability to re-use that data as well.

Be better at making sense of that data

OneWorld UK showcased their work with USAID to make the data collected from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) more available to USAID missions and help them evaluate programmes and plan new initiatives and funding. By plugging into the DHS APIs they strive to automate a lot of the processes that goes into analysing and visualising the data, making it easier for USAID missions to also work together. They are thereby making it easier for people to make decisions without having to interpret the raw data anew.

However, while OneWorld’s tool has a clear purpose, there are many tools out there that don’t have that. Data is great, Yan Naung Oak exclaimed, just don’t build another mobile app or digital portal without a precise use case behind it. Luckily funding for apps without a clear purpose seems to be diminishing as funders are starting to realise that such digital tools require a distribution mechanism and be truly engaging and appropriate for the end-user. Until recently build-it-and-they-will-come was still a very real myth in this space. Yan’s organisation Phandeeyar is trying to do just that, bring together entrepreneurs, civil society and technologists to build digital services that make a real measurable difference. For example, they worked with a group who build the Yangon Bus Service app. For many people, the app is the first opportunity to view the entire bus network in the city.

Making sense of data, yes, building 10 000 dashboards, no. We need to be mindful of the need before building data visualisation dashboards and be careful not to oversimplify.

… and all that in a responsible way

Finally Amy Donnell from Oxfam presented the responsible data forum, a collective of organisations coming together to decide what responsible data means. She highlighted a myriad of different ways in which you can look at responsibility in the field of data for development. Here are some of the questions she posed:

How do you ensure privacy? What do you encrypt and how do you do it?

Are you creating real value or are you duplicating a similar study?

What does consent mean? How do you explain consent?

What does dignity and respect mean in the context of data collection?

Is representation ensured?

What biases do we have when looking at data?

The responsible data forum uses these questions and many more in their handbook to guide practitioners to collect, share and make sense of data in a more ethical and responsible way.

If you have made it this far in my article, I would like to congratulate you! I struggled to keep my post short as the topic is very broad, and I only feel like I am starting to scratch the surface. I would like to thank the ICT4D meetup organisers for this stimulating evening and encourage anyone to join us in London.


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