Why data is the lifeblood of innovation

Hundreds of people from all parts of the world will next week converge on Cartagena, Colombia, to discuss ways of mainstreaming data in development, in an event dubbed the “Cartagena data festival”.

This follows the UN secretary-general’s report on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda that calls for the building of a global data consensus.

The gathering comes shortly after the African Union adopted an African Data Consensus in Ethiopia on March 28. A sustained data revolution is desired to drive social, economic and structural transformation in Africa.

Although many countries may not achieve their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) this year, many millions of families have moved out of poverty, millions more children are in schools and the number of people without access to clean drinking water has more than halved in the last 15 years.

We have leant about successful developmental pathways. And many of the world’s poorest countries are experiencing strong economic growth. We could do better but there is still one key element, the absence of which is impeding progress: data.

A report by UK think-tank Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled ‘‘Data revolution: finding the missing millions’’, notes that data are not just about measuring changes, they also facilitate and catalyse that change.

Only by knowing more about the people who own the least can we hope to bring the benefits of development to them.

Of course, good-quality numbers will not change people’s lives in themselves. But to target the poorest systematically, to lift and keep them out of poverty, even the most willing governments cannot efficiently deliver services if they do not know who those people are, where they live, and what they need. Nor do they know where resources can be deployed with the greatest impact.

Perhaps even more transformative, the report says, the data revolution could play a role in changing the power dynamic between citizens, governments and the private sector, building on open data and freedom of information movements.

It has the potential to enable people to produce, access and understand information about their lives, and to use this information to make changes.
The proliferation of ICTs is making it possible to visualize weather patterns using satellite on real time basis.

After sometime, impact on vegetation can be seen. The knowledge from such data can help farmers predict rainfall patterns.

Similar satellite imagery can be used to estimate poverty patterns and assess development levels in rural areas using images of types of housing. Such estimates were not possible before. Statisticians used conventional methods to gather such data.

However, in most cases, they did not produce accurate data. The ODI report shows that 1.2 billion people ‘officially’ live in extreme poverty, but surveyors often don’t reach the very poor, so there could actually be 350 million missing from the global total.

The report hastens to caution that while we enthusiastically embrace data revolution, discussions around it need to be grounded in reality.

It is understandable that progressive academics and techies in New York, Silicon Valley and Nairobi tech hubs are excited by the potential for big data to change the world.

But this needs to be married with reality: that many statistics offices in developing countries have irregular electricity supply; too often, only a handful of people in the country will have the relevant training to collect and analyse data; and that the few qualified people may be pulled away from their vital work to provide answers to donors’ research questions regardless of whether such questions are relevant to that country’s own data needs.

There is need to massively develop capacity in Africa and transform the continent. There are genuine fears from various civil society organisations that greater appetite for data may lead to compromising of individual privacy.

To mitigate this fear, a comprehensive policy and legal framework is needed to compel users of data to anonymize personal data.

According to the report, there are other unfounded fears among some developing-country governments that the data revolution is yet another donor-driven offensive.

Innovations mushrooming out of Africa today need data, which is the lifeblood of innovation. We curtail our own creativity and progress when we hide data. Data helps us shape policy to respond to human needs. We must begin to celebrate data.

The writer is associate professor at University of Nairobi Business School.

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