I recently had the honour of participating in the Dialogue on Data for accountability within the post-2015 agenda framework earlier this year in New York. Organised by the UNDP, it was refreshing to be amongst people who were for the most part not from the traditional open government and open data fraternity. They brought a sense of pragmatism to conversations about data that one tends to miss when immersed in the fishbowl the open government community can sometimes seem to be.
“Why do we need a data revolution?”, one of the panelists asked during this meeting. It wasn’t a rhetorical question – at least I didn’t think so. Why open data at all? Why open governments? Why build apps and visualise datasets? Is fetishising data a means to an end or an end in itself? Is all this civic tech we spend millions of dollars building every year the whole idea? Tragically, my observations have been, in the last year or so, that a large number of civic tech initiatives around data in sub-Saharan Africa are primarily about the app, technology or the hype. Perhaps not in intent but definitely in implementation.
I believe the context is development. Its why all the things we do need to be done. It’s one of the biggest reasons why we need to curb corruption, eradicate poverty, track disease, visualise data, build an app or hold a hackathon. The pursuit of progress in development is what should drive us. It’s also why I believe the term ICT4D is broken. I’m increasingly thinking that it should be DwICT – Development with ICT.
Post-2015 is a critical time for many. It is not, I believe, the season to be blasé about the role technology plays in development or whether it should. In Post-2015, unlike with the MDGs, we have to be radical in our treatment of data. Strengthening the National Statistics Offices (NSOs) is of course of primary importance. That cannot be emphasised enough. So is building capacity on the demand side to understand how to interpret and manage the data the NSOs churn out. The reality of a data revolution means countries may have to change the data they gather and make decisions related to standardisation of formats, higher frequency of publication or data gathering and improved capacity for citizen engagement.
It will not serve Africa well to have some countries on one path/standard and others on another. We must all pull together. And here’s the trouble: we cannot pull together based on a loose arrangement or a general a coalition of the willing. Direction must be provided via mechanisms that carry weight with African governments such as a charter which countries must sign, ratify and deposit with the African Union. This time around, the race to the top needs an all-business approach, the possibility of sanction and the political will to make the tough decisions in-country that must be made in order for countries to deliver on their commitments and make progress in development. The attitude taken in regard to a Global Partnership for Development Data should be one that takes cognisance of the gravity of the issues on the table and what is at stake for the people of Africa. There may not exist a legally binding mechanism on statistics in other geopolitical blocs like OAS or EU, but one exists in Africa – the African Charter on Statistics. If no one is to be left behind in Africa, this is one way to anchor the partnership on a mechanism African states take seriously.
Let’s not focus so much on data that we forget the context within which the conversation is happening in the first place.
It’s about accountability. It’s about effectiveness. It’s about progress in development. We need to treat this with the same level of seriousness as any of the international treaties currently in force.
At Open Institute, we increasingly believe the answer to development problems lies in not just building apps, visualising data or holding hackathons but in leveraging the opportunity these platforms provide to influence policy and build partnerships in ways that result in better development outcomes. So although we may start some aspects of our work with one of those ‘cool’ apps, our ultimate goal is to realise changes in policy that lead to better of lives. This cannot happen without strong partnerships between the state, civil society and the private sector.