Data for everyone

Sharing data and joining the data discussion has lots of benefits for NGOs.

Fast Forward >> #5: Sharing is caring

28 July 2015
Author: Sarah Johns

"The DataShift is conscious that there is no need for another simplistic, overly ambitious initiative that fetishises data and technology as silver bullets."

Civicus identifies the digital elephant in the room when it comes to talking about NGOs and data in the context of development activities. For a sector still debating the merits of participatory approaches thirty years on, shiny new things like data don’t sit easily. And Civicus is right, data per se is not a silver bullet that will help us meet our development goals.

But my feeling is that we’re not in the data discussions at the points where it matters. Data is development currency – included in the outcomes document from the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (paras 125 – 128) and mentioned 12 times in the zero draft of the outcome document for the UN Summit to adopt the post-2015 development. The Global Partnership for Data in the SDGs launched at the recent Financing for Development Conference in Addis Ababa currently has no NGO signatories beyond advocacy organisations such as ONE.

I’ve lost count of the meetings on development and data I’ve attended where the room is full of staff from think tanks and donors but not a single implementing NGO. In these meetings, NGOs have a unique contribution to make in terms of sense-checking the grand visions of donors. The problem with not being part of these discussions is that people start to talk about you, not with you. NGOs are talked about as data providers: “unlocking NGOs’ data silos” is a common refrain. NGOs are also talked about as intermediaries and data users.

At the 2014 Bond Conference, Robert Kirkpatrick from UN Global Pulse said that NGOs have a crucial role to play in pressing private sector companies to release data, which they could use to inform development activities, working alongside data analytics providers such as Real Impact. But is this really how we want to be represented?

What will it take to encourage NGOs to engage with data debates? The Bond Fast Forward report identifies some issues such as lack of data capabilities within organisations. But I’d challenge this as being too tactical: all NGOs collect project monitoring data and use it as evidence to improve their programmes and projects. I’m wondering if it’s more of a mismatch of aspirations, the grand visions not syncing with NGOs' own priorities?

I’d like to suggest three actions those leading the data discussions can take to engage NGOs, and three for NGOs themselves:

Actions for data discussion leaders:

  1. Focus on the realised benefits (and risks) rather than potential benefits for the poorest communities, and openly recognise the unique contribution that NGOs bring to these discussions.
  2. Reframe the debate around shared data. It might be semantics, but it is less exclusionary than the technical terms ‘open data’ or ‘big data’. The Fast Forward report talks about the importance of NGOs' sharing their ‘deep wells’ of evidence and experience with Southern NGOs and DataShift focuses the discussion on the shared generation and use of data in the context of the SDGs.
  3. Start with the users of the data – the people who mill data into information and knowledge. These include NGOs themselves, so show them what this looks like. Examples include Restless Development’s Big Data Idea project and Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN), where partners work together to advocate for access to data that can make a difference to farmers.

Actions for NGOs:

  1. Take advantage of the opportunities presented by the ‘grand initiatives’ to ensure that the people NGOs work for and with are visible. For example, the Bond Disability and Development Group pushed for disability data to be included in the Beyond 2015 response to the SDG data revolution discussions (and we can see that reflected in zero draft of the SDG document), and the recent joint meeting of the Transparency and Technology for Development Groups focused on privacy issues around data collection and use, reflecting wider discussions.
  2. Engage and participate in discussions about generating or using shared data, including citizen generated data, as part of programme design and implementation. Civicus’ consultations around DataShift found that the NGOs included in the consultation felt that engaging with data would benefit their organisations.
  3. Have the conversation within your own organisation to talk about sharing your own programme data (baseline evidence, methodologies, results etc.) and recognise that doing so helps others - it enhances cumulative knowledge-building in the sector and supports agile programme development. Join the Open Data space on MyBond to find out about events and meetings. Consider joining your local Open Data group - they often hold meetings with an international development focus and are a good way to meet technical volunteers to help you.

About the author

Sarah Johns

Sarah Johns is transparency manager at Bond, covering the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), open data and transparency.