Data brokers and the demand-led digital revolution

30 April 2015

Here at IDS we have, over the years, developed a particular niche in providing services such as Eldis, the British Library of Development Studies and the Open Knowledge Hub  which focus on harnessing technical innovation and working with partners to improve access to diverse research knowledge in digital spaces.

Information is power, Jorge Martin

A key problem identified by the Open Knowledge Hub project is that the demand for freely available, structured digital content (open knowledge) about development is sectorally and geographically uneven and is being primarily driven (and responded to) by a few large institutions based in Europe and North America.

So what we are seeing is a situation where smaller, particularly (but not exclusively) developing country-based, knowledge producers and users are being left behind. The risk here is that a new digital divide is emerging that is further reducing the diversity of perspectives on key development topics that are visible, and being used, in digital spaces.

Cartagena Data Festival

I was very excited, therefore, to be invited to showcase the Open Knowledge Hub project at last week’s Cartagena Data Festival and to have the opportunity to explore some of the challenges we’ve identified from our work with development practitioners, data specialists and innovators who had come together to explore the role of data, and particularly the so-called Data Revolution, in the implementation of the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals.

A key question for me was whether this broad community, interested in data of all sorts – from traditional statistical data sources to new ‘Big Data’ sourced from mobile phones and social media – recognised this potential inequality issue and, if so, what approaches they had identified to address it.

A World that Counts

A starting point for discussion at the event was the release, late last year, of the UN Secretary-General’s Expert Advisory Group report ‘A World That Counts: Mobilising The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development’. The report recognises the opportunity presented by new sources of data in offering ‘unprecedented possibilities for informing and transforming society and protecting the environment’ but also identified possible risks including the dangers of reinforcing existing inequalities in production, access to and use of data.

What’s more they went on to identify a series of actions needed to mitigate this danger that we would very strongly support for our own work:

  • Develop a global consensus on principles and standards
  • Share technology and innovations for the common good
  • Make available resources for capacity development

The report certainly seems to have opened up a useful space for discussing what a 'data revolution for development’ could or should look like but what I found most interesting about the discussion in Cartagena was that, even though this was being framed within the global context of the UN-led post-2015 / Sustainable Development Goals process, much of the talk centred on maximising the value at and below the country level, for civil society and for citizens.

Roadmap for a Country-led Data Revolution

Paris21, the OECD-led partnership for statistics in development, presented their own analysis based on research in over 30 countries and found that the Data Revolution isn’t reaching developing countries as a result, in part, of too little investment in people, skills and infrastructure plus (and perhaps resulting in) poor dissemination and use of data. Their Roadmap for a Country-led Data Revolution focuses on strengthening capacity and resourcing at the country level.

As Trevor Fletcher of Paris21 described it to me:

Part of the message in the road map document is that the data revolution for development has to be country led - it has to build capacity in countries, be sustainable and be owned by countries because although these goals are important for the international community they are most needed by the countries themselves to make sure they are governing themselves well and meeting their own targets to eradicate poverty.

Data brokers

Beyond national governments and statisticians the need to engage with civil society and citizens to develop the skills and capacities to engage with and use data was also widely called for. Gavin Stark of the Open Data Institute made clear in the opening session why this was important:

We face challenges we’ve never had to face before...and we need everybody engaged in trying to find answers to these problems so the question isn’t where is the effort of the research community in this, they’re part of it...the question is how do we make this really for can we open up many more ways for people to engage and have agency in the decisions that are made around their lives.

And Adelaida Trujillo of The Communication Initiative, one of our partners in the Open Knowledge Hub reinforced the point when I spoke to her later in the day:

The important discussion here around data is how to make it more accessible and understandable to those of us that are interested in social change. I still think there's a big gap in terms of how data is communicated to the ordinary citizen to enable active citizenship and accountability.

So many of the challenges and opportunities being talked about in this broad discussion around a data revolution for development do closely mirror those we have identified in our comparatively micro-level work on open knowledge for development. And of course IDS has a long history of working on citizen engagement and participatory approaches – most recently through projects like Making All Voices Count and the Participate initiative – that also have much to offer in terms of relevant thinking on some of the issues raised and possible approaches to addressing them. What I took away from Cartagena was the sense that, firstly, this is an important time to engage with this discussion and, secondly, there is a clear a role for a research organisation like IDS that also has a strong background in knowledge brokering and citizen engagement. This was nicely summed up by Elizabeth Stuart of ODI when I spoke to her on the final evening of the event:

I think it’s particularly important to make sure marginalised voices are being amplified and included in this process – they are absolutely not part of that debate at the moment and often will need an intermediary to help translate their views and to be able to translate what is in the data. I think civil society can partly play that role but I think it's very useful to have a wide group of stakeholders involved and researchers need to be in that space as well - finding ways to act as intermediaries, to be data brokers if you like.

Illustrations by Jorge Martin

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