The ‘data revolution’ will be open

Martin Tisne at Devex: “There is a huge amount of talk about a “data revolution.” The phrase emerged in the years preceding this September’s announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and has recently been strongly reaffirmed by the launch of a Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data.

The importance of data in measuring, assessing and verifying the new SDGs has been powerfully made and usually includes a mention of the data needing to be “open.” However, the role of “open” has not been clearly articulated. Fundamentally, the discussion focuses on the role of data (statistics, for example) in decision-making, and not on the benefits of that data being open to the public. Until this case is made, difficult decisions to make data open will go by the wayside.

Much of the debate justly focuses on why data matters for decision-making. Knowing how many boys and girls are in primary and secondary schools, how good their education is, and the number of teachers in their schools, are examples of relevant data used in shaping education delivery, and perhaps policy. Likewise, new satellite and cellphone data can help us prevent and understand the causes of death by HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Proponents of the data revolution make powerful points, such as that 1 in 3 births go unregistered. If you are uncounted, you will be ignored. If you don’t have an identity, you do not exist.

Yet as important as this information is, I still can’t help but think: Do we change the course of history with the mere existence of more data or because people access it, mobilize and press for change?

We need an equally eloquent narrative for why open data matters and what it means.

To my thinking, we need the data to be open because we need to hold governments accountable for their promises under the SDGs, in order to incentivize action. The data needs to be available, accessible and comparable to enable journalists and civil society to prod, push and test the validity of these promises. After all, what good are the goals if governments do not deliver, beginning with the funding to implement? We will need to know what financial resources, both public and private, will be put to work and what budget allocations governments will make in their draft budgets. We need to have those debates in the open, not in smoke-filled rooms.

Second, the data needs to be open in order to be verified, quality-checked and improved. …(More)”