The Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant tells of blind men who touch different parts of an elephant and come up with wildly different interpretations of the object they are touching—until they collaborate. This taught us early in life the importance of putting together information to get the “full picture”. It is a particular challenge in today’s development ideas. One such example is that of the challenges posed by the report of the high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, a group created by the UN secretary general to recommend the world’s road map for eradicating poverty. A key finding is that to eradicate poverty we need a new data revolution. And we must start now.
From Bono to Bill Gates, the importance of more, better, and transparent data is gaining attention. A data revolution may not sound sexy but it is critical to the eradication of poverty and the realization of sustainable development.
First, data spurs action by governments and policymakers. It’s an old management mantra that “what gets measured gets done”. Data enables governments to identify gaps and fill them. It also allows policymakers to make more informed decisions about how to allocate resources—a challenge that faces decision-makers around the globe.
Second, transparent data empowers individuals to demand accountability. Without data, it is too easy to claim that progress is being made when it is not. Access to accurate, up-to-date, and easily understood information enables people to fully realize their rights and creates constructive cycles of engagement between citizens and their states. And it helps prevent corruption and poor governance.
Third, a data revolution can bring about a world where no one is left behind. Tackling inequality means a fair chance for girls as well as boys; for people living in remote rural areas as well as city dwellers; for ethnic minorities; and for the young and old, and every other group that might be left out if we remain content to measure progress by averages. The panel recommends that no target, whether on education or health or energy, be considered “achieved” until it is met for every income and social group. This requires a significant commitment to improved data. Today we know too little about how these groups are doing.
Despite incredible advances in technology, we still struggle with data that lags behind—often by years—and is expensive and often inaccurate. Even now, over 40 developing countries lack sufficient data to track their performance against the first Millennium Development Goal, of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. We have a long way to go.
What can governments, multilateral institutions and aid agencies begin doing differently tomorrow to bring about a data revolution?
They must move to a new paradigm of data collection and data sharing. Current methods are cumbersome. They are expensive. And they limit data collection to those who are more easily reached. Traditional household survey techniques can cost hundreds of dollars per household. It is infeasible to conduct these surveys on a large enough scale to reach everyone. With the growing affordability and availability of mobile phones, the proliferation of crowdsourcing, geographic information systems and other new technologies and improvements in statistical tools, gathering, analysing and disseminating data is easier than ever before.
There are promising new initiatives: for example, the World Bank’s DataBank, the transparency portals established at national levels such as India’s www.data.gov.in, and the www.ushahidi.com—an open source project which allows users to crowdsource crisis information to be sent via mobile. A mini-transformation has begun. Connecting these initiatives to country and sub-national systems would strengthen both, creating a more solid base of information.
More than ever before, people can connect to their economies and societies, even from remote and rural areas. Connectivity empowers people.
The data revolution won’t be easy. It should not be another burden imposed on developing countries. The data revolution needs to be supported by additional resources. Nor can this revolution be seen as top-down, or imposed. The data revolution must be country-owned, and build upon existing efforts, rather than displacing them. It’s a matter of committing more resources, working together more openly and cooperatively, and drawing on new technologies and tools to make the availability of information more affordable and available.
So what happens now? The panel has suggested a global partnership on data development. Work on this must begin immediately. A consistent and standard data architecture for the global development agenda is needed, and investment in building the capacity to deliver, especially in developing countries where national and sub-national statistical systems need more support.
The UN secretary general will deliver a report in September to the UN General Assembly, offering a remarkable opportunity to propose a new data partnership. The debate over the next development agenda will continue until 2015. But regardless of the outcome, we’ll need to know where we are now to determine where we want to be in 2030. To build that baseline, we need better data.
Varad Pande and Molly Elgin-Cossart are, respectively, officer on special duty to the Union minister for rural development and chief of staff of the secretariat for the UN high-level panel on post-2015 development agenda.