The Big Development DataShift: From Vision to Implementation

By Jack Cornforth, Senior Project Officer, DataShift, CIVICUS

A little over three months ago I joined CIVICUS to work on the Big Development DataShift project. I had of course by this point developed a relatively good understanding of what the project was all about – helping civil society organisations to better collect and use data for the implementation of projects and to campaign for change more effectively.

What was much less clear, however, was how we were actually going to achieve this mammoth task. Yes the project will deliver a number of key outputs, like a global knowledge hub for CSOs and data experts to share experiences and resources, and a DataShift fund to provide support to smaller organisations for the adoption of new data-related tools and methods. But what these things will actually look like in practice and how we go about building them was still very much undecided.

It was against this backdrop that we travelled to Nairobi for a strategic planning retreat with a group of experts from across the world working on data and development, to try and work out how we should start implementing the project. We began, however, by taking a step back to first unpack a number of assumptions and cut through some of the buzzwords that the data revolution has become so synonymous with, and really clarify what the project hopes to achieve in practical terms. It quickly became apparent that there is an incredibly rich pool of expertise and resources out there, so rather than focus on creating new tools and methodologies for improving the coverage and quality of citizen generated data ourselves, the DataShift should primarily to try and increase awareness of and access to them.

When we then turned to how we would go about actually doing this, participants encouraged us to get too ahead of ourselves and think about what the likes of a knowledge hub should look like, but instead first focus on mapping what is already out there and spoke to our target audience to explore their data-related priorities and challenges are. After all, the project is supposed to be demand driven, based on needs rather than simply trying to push for adoption of new technologies just for technology’s sake. It was exactly these sorts of discussions that have now enabled us to outline our priority next steps, such as further mapping the ‘ecosystem’ of data actors, initiatives and methodologies, and consulting directly with civil society in each of our three pilot countries before we actually start to build any of the project tools.

Nairobi was also a fantastic opportunity to foster new partnerships for the project. While CIVICUS will convene the DataShift, both its strategic direction and implementation are heavily dependent upon the expertise and experience of a whole host of organisations. This ranges from international actors with broad remits around international development, as well as those working on specific data-related issues such like credibility and harmonisation, to national umbrella bodies and community-level organisations operating within pilot countries. Participants representing each of these groups took part and are all seemed to be keen to come on board in some capacity. Given the broad scope and scale of the project, and the differing roles and capacities of organisations wanting to become involved, we must now develop a clear governance framework that covers the range of DataShift partnership types.

Immediately after the planning retreat, the DataShift team remained in Nairobi to hold an initial consultation with CSOs from across Kenya. Again, this was very much an exercise in mapping, looking to identify some common priorities and challenges of these organisations which data-related solutions could help address. Two primary issues that emerged were a desire to improve the credibility of research and campaigns (especially in the eyes of government decision makers), and securing the long-term sustainability of organisations and projects. On the latter, participants didn’t just want to access more funds, there was a strong emphasis on the need to harness and develop local skills and resources. What we must do now, therefore – especially in the context of this pilot country – is ensure that our project activities are shaped to reflect these priorities.

This consultation also provided us with an opportunity to test the messaging and language of the project with a very different audience. Did these participants, the likes of which intended to be the ultimate beneficiaries of the DataShift, understand what we are trying to achieve and how we plan to go about doing it? There was certainly consensus on the assertion that ‘data is power’, despite this power being disproportionately distributed. Nevertheless, there was also agreement that everyone has information of value, no matter who, where, or how poor. Our challenge therefore, is being able to communicate how the project will address this power-imbalance with both the ‘grannie in the village’ and the tech savvy youth activist in the capital. Having now returned back to our respective corners of the globe, the DataShift team is very much looking forward to putting what we have learned in Nairobi into practice during 2015 and beyond.