Making sense of data goes beyond counting numbers

28 April 2015

I can assure that this blog post is not one about statistical analysis. Making sense of data goes much deeper than counting numbers. Last week at the Cartagena Data Festival 450 participants from different sectors came together to get to grips with these ideas, and the ‘data revolution’.

It's not about numbers, it's about people, Jorge Martin

Firstly, what is the data revolution? And why is it important? Alan Stanley, conducted a series of interviews at the festival, and got some interesting answers to these questions. 

The data revolution should underpin the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if there is hope to hold governments to account, empower citizens and ensure that the goals are on track. In a recent report by the Overseas Development Institute, ‘The data revolution: finding the missing millions’, they highlight that while significant progress has been made globally to reduce poverty, it is the absence of data that will impede further success.

Connecting the dots: From data points to meaningful messaging

The message that came through loud and clear at the Festival, was that it is all very well to have data, but if it is not accessible or understandable, then it is not useable.

Information is power, Jorge Martin

As highlighted by Carlos Serrano, Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation, it is ‘important to demonstrate through real stories and experience, how data can support development.’ He added, this is ‘not just about data journalism, but empowering people to understand what data is about and how they can use it’. Serrano called for not just governmental transparency but also transparency of media organisations. This call was echoed by other speakers and participants, it should not be about big data needs but whether the data is open or closed, private or shared (if you want more of this, the Open Data Institute and IDS’ own project the Open Knowledge Hub might interest you). 

In essence, it has to accessible, yet not exploitative, and governments and communicators have a responsibility to stand by this. 

Data literacy, Jorge Martin

It was in the side event, Connecting the dots: From data points to meaningful messaging  that communications experts Jeff Knezovich, Katy Harris, José Manuel Roche and Ri Liu explored means and methods of translating and communicating complex data, including using data visualisations, infographics and sound research. 

Presenting data in an attractive way, Jorge Martin

They all made the point of having a diverse team, complete with a range of expertise, to create and interpret data. It is not a one person job. In particular, Knezovich noted that it requires communications, research, designers and technical skills to make it work. Despite the shaky internet connection, Knezovich highlighted these points and others through his live blog at the Festival

Revealing the politics behind the data

So there was a reason that we came to the Cartagena Data Festival. In particular I went to share our experiences of working with the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI). At the Festival, the importance of HANCI and similar projects was incredibly clear. It delves beyond the numbers and reveals the politics behind them.

In particular, the purpose of HANCI is to highlight and hold to account the political commitments made by governments by ranking 45 developing country governments on their political commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition. 

HANCI takes data (from numerous sources) and presents it clearly, and in a way that both governments and civil society organisations (CSOs) can understand. This means that communities, activists and CSOs can understand what governments have committed to, and hold them to account for their promises. Furthermore, for governments, they can clearly see where they are doing well, and where they need to improve. HANCI is definitely revealing the politics behind the data. 

Social media has also been an incredibly powerful tool for HANCI. Governments and CSOs have shared rankings and asked serious questions about how well they are tackling hunger and undernutrition. 

Social media, Jorge Martin

Bringing big data together with citizen-driven data

Alongside the indices in HANCI are the community voices and expert perception surveys. While they are not included within the rankings, they are very important data. In fact, this was the discussion I wanted to hear more about at the Festival. On a practical level, is it possible to have both quantitative and qualitative data in one space, supporting each other? CIVICUS and others talked about the importance of citizen driven data, and in fact colleagues from the Participate Initiative have discussed this point as well. According to Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary general of CIVICUS, ‘the data revolution is just the beginning of a much bigger relationship between the policymaker and community’. CIVICUS has just launched a new project, the DataShift, which explains the issues well. 

The Cartagena Data Festival was a great event. It brought together data experts and development professionals. And at the heart, it concluded that it is not data that is going to change the world, it is people.

All of the illustrations are by Jorge Martin

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