Reflections on year one of the Learning Zone: what we found

By Tom Walker

Our last blog post explained what we produced and shared in the Learning Zone over the last year. This post will focus on what we found.

Benefits to using a broad term to connect knowledge across sectors

Why use the ‘umbrella term’ of citizen-generated data? It’s useful in that it helps us to recognise and learn from similar initiatives across different sectors – but we shouldn’t get too caught up on the labels. Everywhere, information provided directly by citizens is being shared with more ‘official’ institutions. All of these initiatives can learn a lot from each other.

Citizen-generated data is not new, but technology offers new opportunities

Civil society organisations have long collected information from citizens as part of their advocacy, as with the Concerned Citizens of Abra for Good Governance’s work over the last 20 years (see this case study). Still, digital technologies do give civil society organisations an opportunity to collect information from many more people, analyse it in new ways (as with this community land-mapping project in Indonesia), and reach more people with what they’ve found. DataShift aims to identify ways that civil society organisations can do this more often, and more effectively.  

Citizen-generated data initiatives are making a real impact

Overall, we’ve learned that citizen-generated data initiatives are making a real impact in a huge range of areas. To take just a few from the studies by DataShift’s in-country research teams:

Citizen-generated data is not just an exciting prospect: it’s already getting results.

Recognising its value and limitations

For citizen-generated data to be used to its full potential, we need to understand what it can (and can’t) do. As outlined in our Changing what Counts report, and our white paper on government-civil society collaboration, citizen-generated data is not a replacement for quantitative statistics. Rather, it complements existing data collection methods, often providing essential qualitative data about citizens’ opinions and perspectives on what’s needed.

Citizen engagement is key

Our in-country research teams found many cases where official institutions were reluctant to use data from citizen-generated data initiatives. Sometimes this was because the authorities did not see how or were unable to use data effectively. In other cases it was actively rejected after the data highlighted problems that official institutions didn’t want to acknowledge. For example, CARD was asked to stop monitoring teacher absenteeism after it highlighted inefficiencies and corruption in Kenya. This relationship doesn’t have to be adversarial, as Buenos Aires’ open data portal’s hosting of citizen-generated data shows. However, as the Argentine research team concluded, using data in this way may be just one element of a successful advocacy strategy. Citizen-generated data initiatives may help to initiate dialogue, but to get results, civil society organisations will probably need to accompany them with broader efforts to mobilise people.

Important to provide capacity and support for citizen-generated data initiatives

The research has also highlighted practical challenges. Few of the initiatives had systematic ways of checking the information that they collected. Those that did try to validate data mainly relied on time-consuming manual verification procedures like telephoning people who had submitted reports and visiting projects on the ground. We still need to know more about these challenges, as well as finding and sharing practical ways of dealing with them. The amount of data collected by different initiatives also varied dramatically – from small-scale projects focused on land rights in a particular market in Uganda, to combining data from existing government complaints systems with Twitter data. Capturing all of this diversity in one unifying framework may prove impossible.

As the East African research team point out, many of citizen-generated data initiatives are small and localised, and the data they collect can’t be generalised across the whole country or compared with other countries. In almost all cases, initiatives didn’t explicitly connect their work to larger narratives like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – even though their work was often directly connected to them. On this evidence, there’s still a lot to be done before this data can be used to monitor the SDGs in a systematic, cross-country way.

Finally, it’s important to note that most of the initiatives that we’ve come across depended upon consistent, long-term grant funding. In a number of cases, initiatives that were producing useful, high-quality data simply stopped when their funding ran out.

All the research conducted through DataShift suggests that citizen-generated data initiatives need support so that they can continue their work, develop their methodologies and learn from other, similar organisations. In many cases, these initiatives were generating data that couldn’t be found anywhere else. Whether it was information about land-grabs, police violence or pollution data, these initiatives are making real, valuable contributions in a range of areas.

Empowering communities

Citizen-generated data is more than just a ‘type’ of data. Our in-country research teams often found that citizens felt empowered simply by participating in citizen-generated initiatives. Citizen-generated data initiatives allowed communities to articulate their needs from their own perspective and portray themselves in a more positive light, countering their feelings that their communities were misunderstood. They’re a tool for citizen engagement; for proving that institutions are listening to the public beyond just soundbites or promises; and potentially for collaboration too. There’s still more to do, however, and DataShift is ready to help support this work now and farther into the future.

Reflections on year one of the Learning Zone: what we produced

By Zara Rahman

One year ago, we began work on the research and learning aspect of DataShift. We decided to call the space for this work the Learning Zone, and we used it as a way to learn more about how citizen-generated data is being used, worldwide.

Since then, we’ve carried out and commissioned a number of research and learning outputs through the Learning Zone. We were lucky enough to work with people pushing the boundaries of citizen-generated data in their respective fields, carry out research of our own, and partner with research teams in other countries to see what we could learn, together.

Read more

Community call recording and summary: Africa’s Voices’ experiences with engaging citizens, analysing local language data, and demonstrating its credibility

On Monday 27 June, we hosted a DataShift community call with Africa’s Voices in which we discussed three common challenges that many organisations working with citizen-generated data face:

  • how to build and sustain citizen engagement,
  • how to collect and analyse local language data, without relying on translation, and
  • how to demonstrate validity and credibility of citizen data.

Below you will find a recording of their presentation, and a summary of the subsequent discussion. Throughout this week, you can ask any additional questions to Africa’s Voices via Twitter by using our #DataShift hashtag. If you are interested in sharing your experience on a DataShift community call, please contact us and consider joining our community email discussion list!

Thank you Claudia Lopes and Rainbow Wilcox for sharing what you’ve learned with us, and for being so open and responsive to questions!

Summary of the subsequent discussion:

On building capacity: Africa’s Voices works closely with partners and radio presenters to build their capacity throughout the project period. Trainings for the radio presenters, for example, are often around engagement strategies, like how to ask questions to the audience in a way that encourages participation from women and hard to reach groups. Africa’s Voices has created this toolkit for radio stations (with Internews). Sometimes the stations continue to run these kinds of interactive shows, which gives them an opportunity to test these new tools. But other times, the costs (fees for short codes for example) is just too high. 

On sharing insights back to the community: After a series of radio shows focused on the topic being researched, Africa’s Voices aims to dedicate the last show to sharing insights back to the community. Members of the community are invited to join the radio presenters for that last radio program.

On impact: Although it is too early to know what impact the UNICEF Somalia pilot project will be, UNICEF is very enthusiastic about the approach and findings, especially as it is difficult for them to gather large scale qualitative and quantitative insights on the ground in Somalia. UNICEF has already requested an additional three radio series to gather further insights about the health beliefs and behaviours of Somali people.

Factors for success:

  • Africa’s Voices pilot research consistently found a bias towards men and more educated audiencesregarding  engagement. But after trying some different approaches (working with a media partner to develop radio scripts, testing with focus groups the wording and cultural adequacy of the scripts and questions, etc), they were able to change this trend across many projects. For the UNICEF Somalia project, 44% of participants were women!
  • They also learned that it is really helpful to get the radio presenter on board from the beginning – if they are excited and engaged, the project is likely to be more successful.
  • In terms of helpful resources and support along the way, Africa’s Voices attribute much if its learning to “learning by doing”, being so closely connected to a University, and road-testing collaboration with partners through pilot studies. Africa’s Voices is interested in continuing to share their knowledge and learnings via their website (see these toolkits), blog, and communities of practice (like this DataShift community).

On finding the right partners: And finally, in terms of finding the right organisations and radio stations to work with, many times it’s the client organisation that determines these partnership, but networking opportunities is introducing Africa’s Voices to new partners. They find that testing new partnerships through small pilots is a great way to explore expectations and ways of working – to know if it’s an effective collaboration. When selecting radio stations, they research things like: the reach of the stations, and their enthusiasm in the project.


DS reportWe’re excited to launch the final of our three research reports from DataShift in each of our pilot locations. We wanted to know more about how data generated by citizens is being used in Argentina.

So, we commissioned Mariano Fressoli and Valeria Arza from El Centro de Investigaciones para la Transformación (CENIT) to explore the impact of four citizen-generated data initiatives in Argentina:

Here’s a selection of their findings to start you off:

  • Citizen-generated data initiatives in Argentina have increased the visibility of violence against minorities, land-grabs and environmental threats – issues that are often ignored by the mainstream media. Communities who submitted data from their area or learned how to collect it felt empowered by the experience, while others found that submitting data helped them recognise that their issues are part of a wider national or international issue.
  • Although one government agency was incorporating data from an initiative in its decision-making, most institutions are yet to accept and use citizen-generated data in a systematic way. The Matanza-Riachuelo Basin Authority (ACUMAR) includes and responds to data submitted to QPR about river clean-up operations, but other initiatives experienced much more limited government responses. Citizen-generated data initiatives may help to initiate a dialogue process, but organisations will probably need to complement this with other forms of mobilisation to bring about broader changes.
  • Initiatives generally lacked detailed procedures to validate information submitted by citizens. Data was usually checked in a manual, ad hoc way rather than through systematised verification procedures (by contrast, eBird uses semi-autonomous filtering systems and expert-supervised validation mechanisms). Three of the four initiatives were unable to collect large quantities of data because participation rates were too low (potentially because the initiatives were new and were still trying to reach new audiences).
  • Starting a citizen-driven data initiative is likely to become easier in future because of decreasing technology costs, and growing recognition of the importance of open data and need for data that addresses sustainable development issues. Initiatives typically had relatively low running costs and theoretically could be replicated elsewhere: for instance, eBird relies on hundreds of volunteers to gather data, but is managed by only 4 employees and 20 expert advisers working ad honorem.
  • Most initiatives depended entirely on short-term, project-by-project funds, and lacked detailed plans to expand nationally or internationally. Only one of the four had long-term funding. Citizen-generated data initiatives are often introducing practices and technologies for the first time, and will have to work hard to sustain their work and negotiate standards with reluctant institutions.

There’s much more on this in the full report! To read on:

Community call: Africa’s Voices’ experiences with engaging citizens, analysing local language data, and demonstrating its credibility

DScommunityWe hope you’ll join us on Monday, 27 June at 9am EDT/2pm BST/4pm EAT (additional timezones) for a DataShift community call on Africa’s Voices’ experiences and lessons learned implementing citizen-generated data initiatives.

Africa’s Voices has 5 years of experience collecting and using data from African citizens via radio and SMS. Claudia Lopes and Rainbow Wilcox of Africa’s Voices identified three common challenges that many organisations working with citizen-generated data face:

  • how to build and sustain citizen engagement,
  • how to collect and analyse local language data, without relying on translation, and
  • how to demonstrate validity and credibility of citizen data.

Claudia and Rainbow will present Africa’s Voices’ experiences addressing these challenges and several case studies from their work in East Africa to illustrate what they have learned. We hope you’ll join us to learn about these experiences , ask questions, and share your own knowledge on these topics.  

How to join the call

We’ll use a platform called UberConference for this call. At the time of the event, follow these simple steps to join the call:

  1. Using Firefox or Chrome, go to
  2. Plug in your headset with a microphone (this makes the sound quality much better) and select “Mic & Speakers” from the 3 audio options. (If you have trouble using your computer for audio, you can connect using your phone by dialing 607-821-4667 or downloading the UberConference app.)
  3. If you’re up for it, please upload a picture that others will see during the meeting.

If you have any questions, or run into any problems joining the call, please contact Kristin at kristin [at]

We look forward to exploring these topics with you!


Nepal reportToday, we’re excited to launch the second DataShift research report from our three pilot locations – Nepal, Argentina and East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania).

We want to know more about how data generated by citizens is being used in Nepal: what difference is it making?

So, we commissioned Local Interventions Group to explore the impact of four different citizen-generated data initiatives:

Here’s a selection of their findings to start you off:

  • Citizen-generated data initiatives in Nepal have helped many civil society organisations and institutions share information about citizens’ needs and decide how to respond to them. More than 100 community radio stations regularly use Open Mic bulletins to develop radio content debunking rumours about earthquake relief for an estimated 1m listeners per week, while Nepal Monitor’s data on human rights-related incidents is shared with more than 850 embassies, international NGOs and other international bodies.

  • But the government only rarely uses and accepts citizen-generated data. Although Nepal’s cabinet following the April 2015 earthquake used Quake Helpdesk’s data to identify community needs after the earthquake, the call-centre that was set up by the government shut down two months later. Only Hamro Police App collects data that is being used in ongoing monitoring. This lack of use is partly because of government’s limited technical expertise, and partly because civil society organisations have failed to convince government agencies that citizen-generated data could be useful to them.

  • Although many initiatives’ goals were aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), few initiatives paid significant attention to them. Aligning their work specifically with the SDGs could help amplify their impact and allow them to reach a wider audience.

  • Citizen-generated data initiatives often physically collect data using their own staff, because low literacy levels and limited connectivity mean that technology-based data collection methods are out of reach. This can make initiatives labour-intensive, and contribute to errors when the monitors submit data that’s incorrect.

  • Verifying citizen-generated data is difficult and time-consuming in Nepal: only one of the four initiatives had an established process for verifying information. What verification did take place usually involved a staff member calling each individual citizen that had made the report, to confirm it over the phone. This process required substantial amounts of staff time, and inevitably involved errors (such as when the phone number written down was incorrect).

  • To build on existing progress, government, technology and civil society actors need to agree on the value that citizen-generated data can add and start to use that data to influence policy-making, as well as building up technical capacity in civil society organisations.

There’s much more on this in the full report! To read on:

New report on how data generated by citizens is being used in Kenya and Tanzania

e-africa-report-screenshotToday, we’re excited to launch the first of three research reports from DataShift in each of our pilot locations – Nepal, Argentina and East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania).

We wanted to know more about how data generated by citizens is being used in Kenya and Tanzania: what difference is it making?

So, we commissioned a research team (Elizabeth Maina, Linda Oduor-Noah and Crystal Simeoni) to explore the impact of five different citizen-generated data initiatives:

Here’s a selection of their findings to start you off:

  • There are some limited signs that politicians and policy-makers are beginning to use data from citizen-generated data initiatives to inform their work. Local Kenyan MPs used Map Kibera data to address pressing issues in public schools in Kibera, while data collected by CARD was used to get more teachers allocated to schools in Turkana.
  • However, most local or national state actors at local or national level were suspicious of citizen-generated data created by these initiatives, and only used it to a minimal extent. In some cases, there was active resistance: CARD was asked to stop monitoring teacher absenteeism after it highlighted inefficiencies and corruption, while Twaweza’s work in Tanzania was hampered by the government’s efforts to paint it as seditious.
  • The data from many small, localised citizen-generated data initiatives can’t be generalised across the whole country or compared with other countries, but it is having positive impacts in other ways. In some cases, citizen-generated data initiatives allowed communities to articulate their needs from their own perspective and portray themselves in a more positive light, countering their feelings that their communities were misunderstood.
  • The projects rarely connected their work to larger narratives like the Sustainable Development Goals or the sustainable cities narrative – but their work was often  directly connected to them. The Millennium Development Goals were perceived as very top-down: people at local levels never really hearing about them let alone understanding them.

There’s much more on this in the full report! To read on:

Citizen-generated data going global: the DataShift Reunión

This article is written by the engine room’s Tin Geber and was originally published on the engine room blog. Tin coordinates the DataShift’s in-country direct support to help civil society organizations improve the planning and implementation of their citizen-generated data initiatives.

What do you get when you put Kenyans, Tanzanians, Argentinians, Nepalis, Croatians, Canadians, British, North Americans, Romanians, Mexicans, Peruvians, and Brazilians in a room to discuss citizen-generated data for two days — apart from the worst joke setup ever?

La Reunión!

File 02-05-2016, 09 48 28

In the last week of April 2016, engine roomers Anca Matioc and Tin Geber travelled to Bogota, Colombia to helm La Reunion, a workshop to reflect on the DataShift program’s work so far, participate in the International Civil Society Week, and drink some of the best coffee in the world.

We asked 25 DataShift partners from more than 15 countries how citizen-generated data can be used to monitor progress on the 16 Global Goals. We are happy to announce that we don’t have an answer to this question — but we do have a pretty solid idea of how to get there. Here’s what we learned:

The Global Goals don’t connect to the real world easily

The biggest challenge we found was connecting the Global Goals concept with the work done by the NGOs on the ground. Our participants fear the ‘Goals’ agenda might be too elusive and high-level to be practically useful for shaping their work. It doesn’t help that indicators have still not been finalized. Another risk is that grassroots organisations might be doing too good of a job: what if there is a clash between what they consider meaningful, and what Global Goals are measuring?



The challenges are many

Probably the most important session was on understanding the challenges citizen-generated data initiatives face. We know working with data is already hard: adding Global Goals into the mix raises the complexity to 11. How can we really understand these challenges? How do they cut across a huge array of issues, geographic and cultural peculiarities, at such a massive scale?

Well…we decided to ask the people who know best.


CDG = CGD+SDG [photo by Davis Adieno]

The participants’ comments encapsulated this variety, and there were some common themes. They often mentioned difficulties in aligning methods, ensuring representation, and building strong partnerships. On the more practical side, funding as well as capacity building had a strong presence.

The approach works – but it needs to grow

The presentations of our partners’ work showed that the data revolution is happening, and it’s more than just hype. Civil society has the means and the chance to contribute quantitative and qualitative data to the Global Goals narrative.

But it’s not that simple. We are at a very early stage of making the link between grassroots projects — with their own focus and agendas — and the larger picture of national and international monitoring. The DataShift program can’t provide enough support for the dramatic shift in global civil society’s capacity and approach that is needed by itself. Still, it does suggest a strong, practical way forward.

Strengthening community

Community is key. This one is a no-brainer, and the most exciting result of the event. Seeing such a mixed and varied group from dramatically different contexts and cultures slide easily into collaborating confirms our belief that building relationships across national and thematic borders is possible, and vital. Just as the Global Goals make a united push for equality on a high policy level, grassroots national organisations can create their own networks and learn from their peers, no matter where they are.

A wonderful example comes from Nepal’s Local Interventions Group (LIG), which is conducting a “Follow the Money” program to track how governmental aid is spent for post-earthquake relief efforts. After LIG’s presentation of their project in the International Civil Society Week, an organisation from Ecuador approached the DataShift team, wanting to replicate LIG’s work in their own situation. This proves the point that un-siloing experiences can improve civil society across the world. We will do our best to make this collaboration happen.

What is next?

The DataShift has commissioned original research and provided direct support to NGOs working on collecting data in the three pilot areas (Argentina, Kenya/Tanzania, and Nepal). We are collaborating with an impressive array of people whose work spans health, education, urban mobility, disabled persons’ rights, disaster recovery and more. Our goal is to find practical ways to link the Global Goals agenda with local projects. We do this by strengthening their capacity and tech culture to produce meaningful, comparable, and methodologically sound data – so they can hold governments accountable for their commitments to the Global Goals.

Now it’s learning and replicating time. The first phase of DataShift has officially concluded with the Reunion: we will now return to our desks and think hard about what worked and what didn’t. Then, we’ll plan for a second phase that will try to address what we’ve learned until now. Great things are ahead.

This is how you can help:

Citizen-generated data in practice: initiatives from around the globe share their stories

No-one can communicate the importance of citizen-generated data better than those who are actually working with it. At DataShift, we want to highlight the civil society organisations who have told us about the tangible results they have achieved through innovative approaches to harnessing data from citizens.

These results can take any number of forms. For a woman in India who has experienced abuse online but who is unwilling to report it to the authorities, a citizen-generated data initiative represents an opportunity to reach out to others in a similar situation. As another example, in the aftermath of a humanitarian disaster, maps created by citizen-generated data is the reason that international aid agencies have been able to get help directly to those in urgent need.

We could endlessly list the range of people-powered data projects that are making a difference to people’s lives, but we decided that it would be better for you to hear it directly from the organisations themselves. Gathering together a number of firsthand accounts, we have put together a collection of essays that we are calling: “Creating and using data that matters: how different sectors are harnessing the power of the crowd”.


Each essay profiles the objectives, challenges and targets of an organisation using data generated by citizens to achieve their goals.

Contributions from Take Back the Tech! and The Ladies Finger show the role that new technologies can play in gender equality and advocacy work worldwide. Citizen-generated data has helped each of them push taboo subjects, such as sexual violence or tech-related violence against women, to the top of the political and media agenda.

Our contributions come from a range of geographical locations, and many of the initiatives profiled here have an enthusiastic approach to cross-border collaboration. Writing for DataShift from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, Heather Leson shows us how developing community maps can allow people from different countries to come together and contribute to a common goal – better data about areas that may be vulnerable to crises.

Some projects in the collection are organised and run entirely by citizens in a small, local community. Science for Change Kosovo, for example, is collecting air pollution data that fills in gaps in official statistics – gaps that the Kosovan authorities could not fill themselves.

Not all our essays come from young, grassroots organisations. Amnesty International’s senior innovations campaigner, Milena Marin, outlines plans for a micro-tasking community that will help Amnesty with practical, remote research. Tasks like scanning satellite images that would normally take one researcher days, even months, to complete, could now be analysed rapidly by large numbers of online volunteers.

If we are able to find ways of collectively contributing to broader social goals, the potential for impact is huge.

Media outlets are also increasingly incorporating citizen-generated data into their work.  In Argentina, the data team at the La Nacion newspaper has introduced many citizens to the concept of open data through their collaborative data platform ‘VozData’. The results they have achieved have encouraged them to continue working towards a time when transparency and accountability are fully absorbed into Argentina’s political infrastructure.

The need for a workplace culture change is perhaps most strongly illustrated by Sam Dubberley’s contribution from Eyewitness Media Hub. He describes the abundance of citizen-generated data, in the form of audiovisual media shared on social networks, and points out the need to reconceptualise the way in which we consume and distribute it. The fact that the people behind many of these projects are consciously discussing the ethics of the way that data is used and presented is heartening.

We hope that the essays in this collection can help more people feel more confident about asking questions of the data that affects their lives, and taking a hands-on approach to creating it. We would love to get your feedback on the themes they address – get in touch!

Where to find #DataShift at #ICSW2016

icsw2We’re really looking forward to CIVICUS’ International Civil Society Week (ICSW) this year in Bogotá, Colombia! We hope you’ll join us for these two important and related sessions at ICSW if you’re going to be in town:

DataShift: How Citizen-Generated Data is Driving People Powered Accountability for Sustainable Development
Monday, 25 April, afternoon session
In this session, we will be exploring how citizen-generated data initiatives can accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on examples from Nepal, Argentina and East Africa.

How can the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data help ensure civil society is at the forefront of a Data Revolution?
Tuesday, 26 April, afternoon session
In this session, we will be discussing the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data, a new initiative that CIVICUS and the DataShift team are engaging in to ensure civil society and citizen-generated data are recognised as and supported to be integral actors in a data revolution for sustainable development.

And on Saturday 23 to Sunday 24 April we are also hosting a DataShift community gathering we’re calling “La Reunión.”​ This event will bring together our core community of partners and collaborators to share lessons and experiences. We look forward to  sharing what comes out of this gathering in our blog, so stay tuned!

Want to connect with us at ICSW? Send us an email or tweet using our hashtag #DataShift. Looking forward to seeing you in Bogota!