The Data Revolution for Sustainable Development has brought all kinds of data nerds out of the woodwork. Enthusiasts are talking about the need for better data, using data to make better decisions, and how best to take advantage of all types of data, from big to small, global to hyperlocal. The Cartagena Data Festival, which took place last month, was a chance for these so-called “revolutionaries” to stop talking about what the Data Revolution could be and start planning for how to get there. Plenaries and panels brought together the best thinkers from the private sector, civil society, and government, often on the same stage, and dynamic formats such as fishbowls and ignite presentations kept things moving, while bringing in many different perspectives. (You can decide for yourself whether it lived up to Sarah Lucas’ description of it as ‘best conference of a lifetime’ by checking out the archived videos of some sessions).
Though you could have made a fortune selling "I <3 Data" shirts outside the venue, the passionate participants were also frank about the limitations of data. Many talked about how to use data responsibly and focused on how to improve usability. As Kate Higgins from CIVICUS’ DataShift project said, “Data doesn’t change the world. People change the world.”
Luckily, the Data Revolution has both data and people. And in Cartegena, it had people so serious about using data to change the world that a group of them gave up their free time to stay for an informal brainstorming session. The vision for the data ecosystem in the short and medium term that came out of that discussion included these themes:
Take collective action. There are some things we can only do together, like developing global norms, standards, and principles—to make sure data is used responsibly and that it can be open and more easily shared among the private sector, government, civil society, and researchers. Collective action means jointly identifying real world problems that data can help solve and bringing together multi-sectoral teams to solve them. It also means understanding how data ecosystems at the local, national, regional, and global levels interact and who the players are at each level.
Demonstrate impact. We need to find data champions to make the case for investing in data and for using it for decision making—and we need to build on successes in addressing problems as the glue that will hold the diverse players in the ecosystem together.
Increase access and equity. We need to increase access to data and ensure equitable access. This will require developing tools to support data use, especially for those who are not data experts.
Build trust. To be successful, the Data Revolution needs to bring together data producers and users who don’t typically work together. This requires building trust between and among these various groups: national statistics offices, big data producers, citizens and others. Importantly, trust also requires allowing for experimentation and failure to encourage learning and sharing.
The Cartagena Data Festival was a great place to get started on turning this vision into a reality, but it was only a one-off event. So how do you continue to bring this brilliant, diverse data community together? One idea, originally suggested in the UN Data Revolution Group’s A World that Counts report, is a World Forum on Sustainable Development Data—and Cartagena could be a model for it. But a World Forum should also go beyond Cartagena to:
Expand the tent even further. In addition to the amazing community that gathered in Cartagena, more people from the private sector, government policymakers, and Asian data communities should participate in future events.
Tackle real challenges. The Cartagena Data Festival started to address this with the Data Capsule session, where people rolled up their sleeves and used data to look at how public security could be enhanced in Colombia. A World Forum could be a place where data communities across geographies, sectors, and data types could come together to work on problems that we can only solve together—things like how to collect accurate survey data more quickly and cheaply; how to integrate new and traditional sources of data to get a more complete and timely understanding of development challenges; and how to build data literacy from citizens to decision makers.
Make commitments. The Data Revolution needs all of us to stand up and say how we can move it forward in our roles as individuals and institutions. This calls for tangible commitments about what data will be released, how it will be used, how privacy and other protections will be managed, and what resources will be committed.
Celebrate achievements. It’s not a choice between investing in data and investing in development. We need to invest in data for development to make better decisions and reap potential cost savings. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the Colombian Rice Growers Federation created a computer model using data on crop growth and weather patterns to advise farmers which crops to plant. In 2013 it saved farmers from wasting US$3.8 million on seeds and agricultural inputs during a drought. The Forum needs to bring this story, and many others like it, to front page news.
Stay connected. Events like the Cartagena Data Festival are always energizing. You can go for weeks afterwards on the high of meetings new people and getting new ideas. But we need to find ways to maintain the momentum between opportunities for face-to-face meetings. Whether in smaller groups that work together on focused tasks or taking advantage of technology to keep in touch, we need to go into the first World Forum with a plan for staying connected.
There are already plans underway to hold the first World Forum for Sustainable Development Data in Spring 2016. Call me a data nerd, but I, for one, cannot wait.
It’s an exciting time to be a data lover. As Rachel’s post from last week on post-2015 and the data revolution describes, if the revolution becomes a reality we will have more and better data about what’s happening in developing countries. Even better, that data will increasingly be made available to citizens so they can hold their governments accountable for delivering on promises of development. This data won’t just be a single number for the whole nation. Ideally it will be disaggregated by gender, geography, and socio-economic status so countries can better understand who is receiving services, know who’s benefiting from development, and make sure that no one is left behind. The idea that the post-2015 framework will be universal is also making people think about measurement in new ways. Countries like the United States will be asked to report on their progress towards the sustainable development goals, just like developing countries.
Local think tanks and research institutions in Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Turkey, are participating in the study to see what data is available and examine its quality. They will talk with representatives from government, civil society, academia and the media to find out what improvements need to be made in accessibility and transparency of data, as well as the potential for technology-enabled and non-traditional modes of data collection. The teams will be testing the feasibility and relevance of potential ‘zero’ (eliminating extreme poverty) or ‘global minimum standard’ targets (provide free and universal legal identifiers, such as birth registrations). They will be examining the challenges of measuring (and implementing) a universal but country-relevant post-2015 framework for data that covers the following goal areas: Poverty; Employment and Inclusive Growth; Governance and Human Rights; Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Resilience; Global Partnership for Sustainable Development; Energy and Infrastructure; and Education.
IPAR (Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale) has already started this process in Senegal. Launches of the Data Test have also been held in Bangladesh by CPD and Canada by NSI as well as other countries. The country teams met in Nairobi at the end of last month to share what they have learned so far.
Country teams will be collecting data through July, and providing updates about their findings-- we will be linking to their posts as they come out. Once the teams are done with their research, they will come together to share what they learned and draw lessons that can help inform the selection of the targets for the post-2015 framework. You (and data lovers everywhere) will be hearing a lot from them—in blog posts, In-Progress Notes, via reports and at meetings—over the course of the next year.