UN Data Revolution - Part 3

This will be my final post on the UN report 'A World That Counts' which seeks to locate the UN's role in the wake of the data revolution. In previous posts I have outlined some concerns with the report, it's articulation of notions about citizen engagement, ideas about development and also the role for private companies in this picture. 

Several interconnected but useful commentaries have surfaced in recent months which I have read with interest in regards to the report. So looking back at the report here are some which I think I would mention. 

Morten Jerven - The problem with the data revolution in four Venn diagrams

Morten Jerven writes in this article for the Guardian that we also should be critical of the limited view presented by the report in terms of it being a roadmap for action. Jerven presents a series of venn diagrams to explain why. He makes four key points in regards to the report:

1. Not everything that counts can be counted
2. Data is not the same as statistics
3. More data does not mean better decisions
4. There are other methods to knowing than through counting

He asks us to consider how much we should invest in numbers and what type of metrics we should invest in?
He warns against against hubris. As he puts it, the act of counting itself does not guarantee objectivity or always make us wiser.

Michael Hobbes - Stop Trying to Save the World


A second and wider critique of the entire development agenda comes from Michael Hobbes at the New Republic in this article. He suggests we should clearer about what doesn’t work or has shown less success so far, this is a new area with an open field of possibilities. There is no need to replicate poor ideas. 

His article makes for very engaging reading and the implications are too deep to try to expand in this blog post. He points out that he prefers to suggest that it is not that development is broken, but the problem is that our expectations of it are.

The critique of the report might be that it sketches out a landscape, but does not go far enough to move away from the status quo. It attempt to fire up the imagination, by seizing enough of what matters to bring forward discussions about ‘for who’ and ‘for what’. But it does not look critically enough at what needs to change in the established regimes of how international development is conceived of in its ideas about how to harness the data revolution.  

Another associated point to consider is how the report attempts to bend towards a rights based view of how data governs our lives. There is a tendency for those within ICT4D to seek technical solutions rather than to follow the doxa, and often these efforts tend not to be based in rights based language. This seems most often to express a desire to bypass voice, to find a way around the existing channels of arbitration and consensus in the public space – think niche, think geek. This is a difficulty for the report in that is seeks to adopt the language of human rights, but it does this in a limited way as it has to stretch the terms used around some very broad and fuzzy concepts.

The point that Martin raises is that for aid to work as assistance for functioning democracies, governments and civil societies, it needs to be self-limiting – consciously eschewing big ideas and paying constant heed to local conditions. He also takes his cue from many of the debates around behavioural economics that have been pushed forward by the research of the J-Poverty Lab and others and have sought to challenge a lot of conventional thinking about development.  

Jed Miller's blog post - Will the Data Revolution Be Well-Advised?

Jed gives a more or less balanced appraisal of the report in his blog post saying that it is strongest where it seeks to ensure inclusion in the data revolution. From his persepctive the two oversights are its underestimation of the role of civil society and its over-reliance on the notion that citizens equipped with accurate, usable data can be successful independent agents of social change. He points out that it suggests:

"an idealized, if not unexamined, vision of a super-citizen with the ability to leap over entrenched political, economic and bureaucratic barriers using crowdsourced data, or hashtag campaigns or data APIs"

Tiago Peixoto  - Evidence of Social Accountability Initiatives


Tiago Peixoto in his blog post highlights an interesting paper on evidece around social accountability inititatives which chimes quite well with the above mentioned posts. The paper by Jonathan Fox suggests a necessary distinction between tactical and strategic approaches to the promotion of citizen voice to contribute to improved public sector performance.

Fox suggests that tactical interventions tend rely on optimistic assumptions about the power of information alone both to motivate collective action and to influence public sector performance.

In contrast, strategic interventions are multi-pronged and encourage enabling environments for collective action and also bolster state capacity to actually respond to citizen voice. Not simply focusing on the supply of information or data, but also on the demand and the capacity to act effectively around this.

There is also a neat diagram to demonstrate what this 'Sandwich Strategy' looks like:

Tim Davies - Unpacking open data: power, politics and the influence of infrastructures


Tim Davies gives a concise and beautifully illustrated talk (thanks to the amazing Willow Brough) addressing some of the questions around the "anticipated civic impacts" of open data. He looks at how changing regimes around data can reconfigure power and politics, and the limits of current practice. He then attempts to re-imagine the open data project, "not merely as one of placing datasets online, but as one that can positively reshape the knowledge infrastructures of civic life". 

Matt Stempek - Why Use Private Data For Public Good


Matt Stempek wrote an article for the Harvard Business Reveiw in July of 2014 titled "Sharing Data Is a Form of Corporate Philanthropy". In it he focuses on just two key areas that are proving to be game-changers for data - responsive cities and academic research. 

In regards to my critique of the UN Global Pulse's adoption of the WEF's vision of data as a 'resource' for economic progress the UN Global Pulse in fact also did hold a meeting in 2014 to discuss this very issue which is detailed here. The same topic is picked up by Tim Davies in his blog post here.

In the light of of these critiques I think a key question that surfaces is that of citizen engagement in this process. Either we find ourselves overselling or underselling citizen engagement as a factor in these discussions. In the spirit of this discussion I would put forward a few questions that spring to mind, or at least a few myths that present themselves as in need of busting one way of the other. These might be summarised like this:

Some Myths About Citizen Engagement


1. Engagement is too expensive
2. Citizens aren’t up to it
3. Engagement only works for easy issues
4. Citizen Power is a floodgate we should avoid at all times
5. Citizens don’t want to be involved they just want good services

Like all good myths they are not true in the strict sense of the word. But there is also a grain of truth in each of them which explains their durability for policy makers and government bodies as blind yardsticks. There has also been far too much talk around citizen engagement as some kind of one dimensional derivative of other things. It is like saying that all you need to do to make this particular tune rock is to turn the volume right up. It looks like it might work, but usually doesn’t.

It would be great to see a potential list of 'Myths about Private Sector Engagement' too..Maybe something to think about, or at least to bear in mind for 2015. 

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