Daniel Key, an American computer programmer, is credited with coining a quote about the link between data and information, pointing out that while it is possible to have data without information, you cannot have information without data. This statement points to two fundamental and interrelated issues. To have an informed society cannot be about rumours and opinions. It requires evidence. Such evidence is generated through collection and analysis of data. The second is the need to translate data into a form that can inform decision-making. This is about analysis and utilisation of data. It is this process that will translate the data into information. Without this all you will have is a collection of data without any effort to derive some logic from them.
On June 6, the place of data in decision making in the Kenyan context came to the fore when President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed the nation on the lifting of the curfew and lockdown in some parts of the country as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The President had in the days leading to that address to the nation, given hints of reopening the economy.
Social media was awash with hashtags and images of preparations for the expected celebration after around two months of these containment measure. Kenyans were waiting for what they called “Freedom Day.”
The decision by the President, therefore, to extend the measures by another 30 days was not just a shock but raised issues about what drove the apparent change of mind. His admission that the action was taken in the best interests of citizens’ lives as a result of the data from the country’s scientists, however shifted the focus from disappointment to a reality check.
He informed the nation of the scenarios to expect depending on how the y dealt with the measures so that Kenyans could appreciate the dilemma he and the country were in and the need for the actions he consequently announced.
The debate therefore shifted from whether one liked the measures being extended or not to what better alternatives one could propose to deal with the situation. It indicated the importance of basing public policy decisions on data. The place of professionals in collecting evidence to inform policy makers has due to the pandemic been demonstrated worldwide. One only hopes that it does not get relegated to the backburner once a cure is found and life returns to normal.
I have seen several advertisements for research funding on data and its management, including on artificial intelligence. They point to the renewed focus on harnessing the power of data to inform efforts to solve the myriad problems facing the world.
As a society we have way too often relied on rumours and perceptions and relegated evidence to the backburner of our decision-making processes. This requires to change. We must make data collection a principal component of any undertaking. The discipline of collecting regular data becomes a priority item in the quest to make data central to all actions. It is important though that we eschew the common practice of collecting data for its own sake.
There are many institutions and public processes of data collection which have become an end in themselves. In the country, we get asked for all manner of things sometimes repeatedly. When there is a need to use such data, as opposed to going to the database, people collect the data afresh. Consequently, citizens get tired of data collection.
This calls for the need of not just a centralised place for storing all data that an institution or the country collects, but also analyzing this data. It is analysis that translates data to information that can inform policy makers so that they make decisions that are based on clear evidence.
If we want to move to a more developed and progressive country, it is important that we adopt an evidence-based approach to our public policy making and implementation. This will enable us design policies that are contextually relevant and backed by data. This will improve the chances of the policies being responsive and effective.