The Long Road to a Transformative Data Revolution

The current excitement around the role of data in supporting the delivery of the sustainable development agenda is in itself revolutionary. A few years ago the discussions were limited to a few organisations directly dealing with data. More encouraging now is the flurry of activities in-country by data enthusiasts to mobilise government, civil society, donors, multilateral organisations, academia, and media, among others; to join hands in ecosystems that can harness the data revolution to address a range of data and development challenges.

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Full house at the national data revolution roadmaps workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 12 – 13 August 2016

As part of our work on this agenda, CIVICUS, through the DataShift initiative has joined forces with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) to galvanise political commitment, align strategic priorities, foster collaboration, spur innovation and build trust in the booming data ecosystems of the 21st century. One of the ways this has been pursued so far is through a series of national data revolution roadmap workshops organised by the GPSDD and led by national governments and partners. The series kicked off in April in Colombia, followed by Sierra Leone in June, and subsequently in Tanzania and Kenya in August 2016.

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The Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Devolution and Planning, Hon. Mwangi Kiunjuri (third left) during a panel session at the national data revolution roadmaps workshop in Nairobi, 15 – 16 August 2016

 

The back to back workshops in Tanzania (12 – 13 August) and Kenya (15 – 16 August) – both DataShift pilot countries – explored how stakeholder ecosystems can meaningfully harness data to drive progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the national level. A unique feature of the workshops was the blending of local and international actors who shared a platform to showcase their work, mull over challenges, share experiences, and brainstorm ways to shape the country-level data revolution agenda. Learning from each other is the best way to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

Challenges with data collection, access, and use that were raised during the workshops had many similarities across the countries. However, the diversity in socio-economic, cultural and political systems makes one realise that we need highly contextualised approaches to data ecosystems. Attending and facilitating sessions at the workshops also reminds one that the data revolution will not happen on its own. Efforts made by the GPSDD and other players to catalyse action, especially at the national level; like the Office of the Deputy President in Kenya, National Bureau of Statistics Tanzania and the Open Data Council in Sierra Leone, need to be fully supported by other governments and additional stakeholders.

Change processes in-country take decades, mindsets have to change, social and cultural beliefs must be reshaped to align to new ways of doing things, and partnerships have to be forged to do the actual work. It is however doable, if we make the right connections – this was demonstrated in the presentations by  Kenya Health Data Collaborative, Kwantu, Open Institute, Kenya Open Data Initiative, #NationNewsplex, Map Kibera and ourselves (DataShift), among others, during the Nairobi workshop. We therefore need to urgently connect the dots and complement one another.

The call to LNOB (“leave-no-one-behind”) will not be as easy as ABC. Significant gaps remain in trying to establish who are in real terms already or at the greatest risk of being left behind. In most places, we have barely scratched the surface (financially, technically, or otherwise) in fully understanding where they live and what their needs are; yet with only 14 years to realise the SDGs, we don’t have any time to waste! DataShift’s exploits with the Open Institute in localising the SDGs at the community level in Lanet Umoja Location, Nakuru County, in Kenya with Chief Francis Kariuki, hopes to demonstrate (at a small scale) the sort of effort needed to reach everyone, including the most marginalised, to better understand their needs and priorities, and the kinds of resources needed by government and others to meaningfully impact their lives.

National Statistical Offices (NSOs) are sounding more progressive and receptive to multi-stakeholder engagements and approaches on the data revolution. They are however, burdened by severe capacity gaps and limited resources. It can never be overemphasised that they need urgent support to define practical mechanisms for coordinating the new age National Statistical System (NSS) of data producers and users. And yes, it’s also time for the political goodwill in our countries to yield domestic resources to fully support these national processes – there’s a limit to what the GPSDD and its champions can do for us.

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Over 300 participants attended the community SDG 5 Forum in Lanet Umoja Nakuru County in Kenya on 23 August, hosted by Chief Kariuki. Organised in partnership with the Open Institute and DataShift. It explored ways to domesticate global goals for local impact, with a special focus on gender equality

Political will can be a great tool for mobilising stakeholders and resources. Its absence, however, can also break great initiatives as a result of the push and pull for power, resources, and relevance. The impact of politics, therefore, is not to be underestimated. We need well-defined (and clearly understood) accountability frameworks and rules and responsibilities that apply across the board, not just for government, to effectively overcome negative political machinations.

It can be noted from the engagements thus far, for the data revolution to fully support the delivery of SDGs, it needs:

  1. Policy/legal frameworks and well defined national roadmaps that catalyse reforms, provide visionary leadership and create the infrastructure necessary for integration and implementation in formal government planning and development processes.
  2. A natural home in a core institution or set of institutions (political, technical and financial), that are responsible for coordinating and providing leadership for its delivery, and can be held to account for their actions.
  3. Full ownership by various arms of government (executive, judiciary, and legislature) who commit and allocate domestic money and other resources to support its implementation and concrete action.
  4. Awareness to be raised so that stakeholders, especially citizens and civil society organisations, fully understand it, own it, and are empowered to use it to take action and to hold governments accountable.  

A truly transformative data revolution should be seen as one of several major steps in a long term transition to sustainable development. This must last well beyond 2030 to support whatever post-2030 global framework is adopted. We must therefore do what needs to be done now while also creating incentives, nurturing partnerships, and strengthening institutions through which longer-term visions can be achieved. A special focus on those at the highest risk of being left behind; those in vulnerable, conflict-ridden and fragile states ravaged by chronic and absolute poverty, hunger and instability would be a great starting point. It’s great harvesting low-hanging fruit, but if we are to change the discourse for humanity, then energy and resources need to be channelled to address the structural causes of poverty, instability, and marginalisation. This includes climate change – which is already hitting us all, but the most vulnerable the hardest. But the convergence of technology, sustainable development expertise and citizen voice that the data revolution can foster, offers an incredible opportunity to better understand these challenges, along with how to address them.

Lastly, the affront on civic space across the world is, and will continue to be, a major threat not just to citizens, but to governments themselves. CIVICUS has documented serious violations of civic space in 109 countries last year alone. Unless the tide changes, the rhetoric around meaningful partnerships and data ecosystems amounts to nothing but double-speak. Resources are also rapidly dwindling and the natural instinct for governments is to focus on a few selected priorities (often political). Never has there been a greater opportunity for inclusive socio-economic transformation through the emerging technological revolution, innovation, and citizen empowerment. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are no longer a choice, they are an absolute must.

Follow our conversations on Twitter via #DataShift.

 

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