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The data revolution: finding the missing millions

Time (GMT +01) 15:30 17:30


Even when people are counted, the counting is not good enough. What is assumed to be an empirical fact – a statistic – is too often the result of assumptions, extrapolations or a political negotiation. Twice the number of women could be dying in or after childbirth in sub-Saharan Africa than the published numbers tell us. But we cannot be sure. There are 350m people in the world who are literally uncounted – missed out of household surveys.

A major new report by ODI’s Development Progress project argues that quality, relevant, accessible, timely data is needed to allow governments to extend services into communities which until now have been blank spaces in planning processes. Conversely, the same data innovations can give agency to the marginalised, allowing them to track the information necessary to hold governments to account. Data has the potential to be genuinely revolutionary. 

The solutions to the current data gaps are threefold: increasing investment and therefore improving the quality of household surveys; using big data to fill the gaps in these surveys; and making better use of the data we already have.

The report showcases a range of active programmes, projects and pilots experimenting with new uses and forms of data to solve problems in a range of country contexts, and, in the process, change the way we view the world. It will be an iterative, adaptive process, changing as evidence emerges what the data can tell us, and how it can be used for further development progress. It will also mean that processes and ideas can be reshaped as new technologies emerge.

Event Summary

The event was chaired by The Guardian’s James Ball, Special Projects Editor.

ODI’s Elizabeth Stuart began, arguing ‘the things we think we know about development, we don’t… the Finding the Missing Millions report refers to people living around the world in vulnerable populations who are missed out of household surveys… if 350 million people are unaccounted for, our poverty estimates could be out by at least a quarter... That’s a pretty significant finding’. She went on to discuss the potential of the data revolution to address these data gaps and the next steps we need to take to ensure the benefits of such a revolution don’t just accrue to a select few. Where do we start? It has to be with investment, she argues. 

Pali Lehohla, Statistician General of Statistics South Africa, went on to discuss the different means of data collection and the potential for technology to remove the barriers. He moved on to look at equity of access, highlighting the disparity between the numbers of people able to access mobile technology versus the number of users of mobile phones, but also cautioned about the uses and misuses of statistics.

Francesco D’Orazio, VP Product of Pulsar, followed, providing examples of big data and how better perceptions data can enable health providers to more effectively target public health education programmes and how monitoring of social media channels can provide more information about what is happening on the ground. But this is qualitative data on a quantitative scale, affected by people’s perceptions and individual contexts, and so has to be handled in a different way to what we’re used to. 

Rufus Pollock, President and Co-founder of Open Knowledge, argued that we have to make better use of the data we have and emphasised the value of open data to society. Open data should be free for anyone to use and we can open it up to all kinds of uses we couldn’t have foreseen from the outset. We’ve lagged behind the advances in technology we’ve made – we’re in a digital age and there are very strong arguments for using public money to pay for data collection that can be used by all kinds of actors.

The MIT Media Lab then showcased a short film of some of their projects. Cesar Hidalgo joined the conversation, as James Ball asked him, what’s the biggest problem? A lack of data or a lack of imagination? Cesar asked, what medium is there for data? We have mediums for writing – magazines, books. But we don’t have very good mediums for data. We used to only have macro, aggregated data – now we have data at a much more granular level – but can we make a clear story emerge out of all this detail?  

The panel then discussed several points:

- The power of data as a non-viable good (i.e. it doesn’t get depleted with use) versus the inequity in access to (and the benefits of) that data. We need to build tools for people to access and use data – there are many more reports being produced every year than such tools.

- The mismatch between the open access quality of data and the skills to adequately analyse it to provide real insights.

- The first imperative to kick-start the data revolution: (1) A change in how we make decisions; (2) Better civil registration and vital stats – moving paper from one place to another; (3) Understanding what the needs are for better data; (4) Release early, release often, release open; (5) Focus on locational data and overcome the barriers of the many people without a physical address.

- The quality of data – and whether policy-makers and people really care about whether we’re getting the numbers right. Elizabeth Stuart argues that this is changing as we see the economic value of better data and recognise the gaps of the MDGs – yet there is still not enough attention on those missed from the official statistics. Pali Lehohla says we are pushing on an open door and Rufus Pollock emphasises how cheap collecting data has become and the high return on investment.

- The regional distribution of access to technology. The gaps are changing and shifting constantly – today, 20% of interactions on Facebook come from Asia. The real possibility of data lies in its ability to open up the known unknowns – it can provide answers to questions you would never have thought to ask.

The panel then took questions and comments from the audience. Here are a few of the highlights:

- Chris Underwood of Safer World pushed the panel on the role of power and politics in this debate: (1) We talk about the citizen and we talk about the state – but this relationship is local – and has implications for how data is collected and used.  (2) The data revolution will call for a broad array of stakeholders but often those stakeholders are not sitting at the same table. (3) what about the risk of marginalising already isolated groups – who collects, understands and then uses data? These are all critical questions.

- Elaine from Sightsavers raised the point about commonly excluded groups and the lack of disability data. Elizabeth Stuart concurred, while Pali Lehohla called for a broad consultation to determine what is of concern to populations to guide governments in data collection. The (lack of) data concerning elderly people was also raised. 

- A further question from the audience was raised on whether the data revolution could increase asymmetries in power relations. Rufus Pollock used the analogy of the printing press – the rich probably printed more books than the poor could initially, but in the longer-term, people have used the printing press to challenge the balance of power or disrupt the status quo.