True development geeks will know that today is World Development Information Day. Since 1972 the United Nations has been urging us all to raise awareness of development challenges. Four decades on, with a call for a ‘data revolution’ in development by the High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda and the creation of an Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on this revolution, the issue of development information is squarely back on the agenda.
But over these years a very important transformation has taken place. In 1972, the UN General Assembly felt that “improving the dissemination of information and the mobilisation of public opinion, particularly among young people, would lead to greater awareness of the problems of development.” Today, after dramatic developments in information and communications technologies, talking of one-way ‘dissemination’ seems antiquated, if not a little patronising. Instead, we have unprecedented opportunities for people to engage in two-way or indeed many-to-many conversations, and for data and information itself to be a transformative part of the development process.
The clearest demonstration of this transformative potential lies in the ability of ordinary citizens to collect, curate and use data to hold power-holders to account. There a plenty of examples of innovation on this front.
In India, www.ipaidabribe.com is crowdsourcing citizens’ reports of being asked for a bribe via free phone calls, mobile apps and the Internet. This has created new data to show policymakers about the prevalence of bribery in India and also a new map of citizen-reported data on corruption. Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a network of community-based organisations representing the urban poor in 33 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, works with whole communities to count households, map settlements, and survey at the household level to develop a detailed socio-economic profile of the settlement, thereby making these marginalised groups become active partners in their own development. The Participate ‘knowledge from the margins’ initiative and the Initiative for Equality’s field hearings are two primary examples in which samples of the poorest and most marginalised sectors of society – likely to be missed by traditional indicators – have been directly asked about their needs and priorities.
Approaches of this kind could serve as an important model for scaled-up methods used to acquire qualitative data on development – not just for the sake of collecting data but also for empowering people in the process.
This World Development Information Day, please bear in mind what we need to do to realise the true emancipatory potential of information and data in the development process. Let’s make this data revolution truly revolutionary.
While greater and more accurate information is course welcome, the data revolution risks being a missed opportunity if it fails to directly engage and empower people. What we should focus on, therefore, is improving the quality and accessibility of data most relevant to people’s lives, and equipping them with the information to hold decision makers to account.
This is why we at CIVICUS launched the Big Development DataShift as a voluntary initiative at the Mexico City High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation. Our aim is simple: build the capacity and confidence of citizens and civil society to generate and use data to monitor development progress. At the moment the vast majority of civil society organisations do not use the tools and techniques required to tap into the potential of the data revolution. Building this capacity will require a heavy lift but it is essential, not just to create the demand for the vast amounts of data being opened up but also to encourage them to become more active players in generating data.
Development contexts are complex, but a bottom-up approach puts citizens at the centre of sustainable development. The needs, interests and experiences of individuals and communities will reveal the most telling insights about development progress or lack thereof.
So, today, as you celebrate World Development Information Day, please bear in mind what more we need to do to realise the true emancipatory potential of information and data in the development process. Let’s make this data revolution truly revolutionary.
Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance with members in more than 140 countries. His previous roles have included Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, and Deputy Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He can be found @civicussg on Twitter and Facebook.