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Are we ready for a data revolution?

In July 2012, the UN Secretary- General Ban Ki Moon appointed a High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. In its report, the panel calls for the building of a global data consensus.

According to the report, “Too often, development efforts have been hampered by a lack of the most basic data about the social and economic circumstances in which people live… Better data and statistics will help governments track progress and make sure decisions are evidence-based; they can also strengthen accountability.”

This is simply a call for a data revolution. Free big data from satellite imagery is pouring unimaginable data into the hands of a few people who can convert it into knowledge and necessary visualization for better decision making. The revolution is upon us. Ignoring the transformation is not wise.

Unfortunately, African states are not leveraging on these data advances to change the livelihood of their people. This is because African National Statistics Offices (NSOs) are debating whether such data conforms to known statistical standards and methods.

Yet technology will continue to decolonize data. We must embrace thinking outside the box and adapt to emergent ideas.

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The proliferation of Information Technology and Communications (ICTs) is making it possible to visualize whether patterns over time.

Combining such technologies with satellite capacity, it is now possible to predict weather behaviour on real time basis.

Poring over such analysed data, you begin to see the impact on vegetation. Farmers can use such data to predict rainfall patterns, and adapt accordingly.

Satellite imagery on housing types can also be analysed to estimate poverty patterns and development in rural areas. Such estimates were not possible before.

Statisticians used conventional methods to gather such data and in most cases did not produce accurate data. Now, data gathered using conventional means can be triangulated with satellite data to give a fuller, three-dimensional picture.

These new formats of data are referred to as big data. A new concept that describes any large amount of structured (organised), semi-structured and unstructured data that has the potential to be quarried for information.

It is then analyzed and used to predict future events or to extract other value from data. For example, in Uganda mobile data has been used to predict population movement patterns.

These patterns also are associated with the spread of certain diseases such as common cold. With such knowledge, we can begin to contain more complex diseases such as Ebola.

For decades we have used basic, conventional, statistical methods to monitor and evaluate projects. However, most projects failed and continue to fail precisely because of reliance on such archaic methods.

Big data from social media could be more effective and efficient to use in monitoring and evaluation. The capture and analysis of social media data can provide instantaneous sentiments analysis from a population.

This is already happening in marketing research, which is increasingly relying on social media.

New terminologies, such as social media strategy management, crowd sourcing and digital ethnography are emerging. Organisations have started to include social media as part of an overall budget or strategy.

But this new thinking has not been incorporated in African NSOs. The preference for basic data collected using archaic methods will in the long run undermine accuracy of African data.

While it is true that we need data on basic development metrics to plan, budget, and evaluate, there is need to keep pace with technological changes.

Moreover, for data to be useful and valuable, it must be accurate, timely, disaggregated, and widely available. Unfortunately, in Africa, data remains a government secret.

For instance, Tanzanian parliament this week outlawed using data from sources other than the national statistics organisation.

Yet, for any statistical system to work towards improving policy and enhance accountability, it must allow all stakeholders to collect and freely exchange and analyse high-quality data.

There is perhaps no other place on earth where good data is more urgent than in sub-Saharan Africa. African NSOs must begin to embrace big data and a culture of sharing data.

This is because with ICTs, no one has the monopoly of analyzing any form of data. Big data does not undermine traditional statistical methods. It is complimentary.

After all, statisticians try to get numbers that are closest to actual picture. Big data is not just validating the data we have; it improves it.

With GPS mounted on motorbikes in Nairobi, young Kenyans are leveraging on big data as well as technology, to build new enterprises and create employment.

It is therefore imperative that we embrace the data revolution. Geoffrey Moore said, “Without big data, you are blind and deaf in the middle of a freeway.”

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

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