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Tracking the Data Revolution

​​Last year's report by the High Level Panel on Post-2015 Development Goals -- A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development -- got the attention of statisticians, politicians, development agencies, and civil society organizations when it called for a "a data revolution for sustainable development, with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens." Although statisticians are unlikely revolutionaries, the UN Statistical Commission in March 2014 convened a special session on "Managing the Data Revolution," which brought together national and international statisticians to discuss the implications of a data revolution for their work. It also explored opportunities for partnering with the new data producers in the private sector, advancing open data policies and procedures, and utilizing innovative methods of data collection.

Recent Events about the Data Revolution 

Since the High Level Panel report was issued in May 2013, several events have spread the word among senior officials, raising awareness of existing data gaps and the need for better statistics to guide the post-2015 development agenda. In October 2013 Paris21 held a conference for Development Assistance Committee delegates at the OECD on "What does the data revolution mean for Post-2015 and how can we help make it happen?" A similar event was held in November in Brussels on "The data revolution: building on previous success," as part of the European Development Days program on good practices for the data revolution.


The World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings in April 2014 included a session on "Talking About Data Revolution." Jan Eliasson, keynote speaker and deputy secretary general of UN, described four necessary steps: investing more in national capacity building; using new sources of data; better leveraging the power of information technology and big data; and liberating data through open data policies and practices. At the same meeting Nick Dyer, director general of DFID described "three things needed" and "three things to do" for the data revolution. Needed: getting good baseline data immediately for 2015 rather than waiting until 2020; working to end "invisibility" in areas like data on girls and women; and making a clear commitment to open data. To do: collect less but better data (quality rather than quantity); encourage broader public use of reliable data; and get political commitment for building a global partnership for support of development data. World Bank President, Jim Kim, closed the meeting stressing the bank's commitment to development and promising significant statistical capacity improvements in thirty IDA countries in three years.


There are many potential partners for development statistics: international organizations and aid agencies, advocates for accountability and transparency, data innovators, and--the guardians of official data -- statisticians. The data revolution will be the work of many hands. But discussions across disciplines and with many stakeholders are difficult to manage. The January 2014 meeting hosted by the United Nations Development Program on "Data and Accountability for the Post 2015 Development Agenda" demonstrates this point. Many interested groups were present, but the discussion failed to produce a consensus on how to move forward, mainly because there were not enough interactions among different expert groups. The lesson is that more thought needs to be given to designing events with diverse stakeholders that keep everyone motivated on building an effective global partnership for development data. The bottom line for now is that not enough progress has been made to establish a global partnership or reach agreement on the set of actions needed to launch a data revolution.

Main Stakeholders and Current Thinking

The good news is that many organizations are involved in Data Revolutions discussion.  It is also good news that this includes many new to the development data business. This however does add to the complexity of building partnership going forward, including, at times, chaotic meetings and discussions. 


 The High Level Panel: According to Homi Kharas, lead author of the report, the initiators of the data revolution idea did not have a specific agenda in mind. They only hoped to stimulate a global discussion and movement. However, they did have a vision, as Homi outlined in a World Bank blog:

"This focus on evidence, and the growing pressures to link funding to proven impact, could be hugely significant. The High-Level Panel report coined the term 'a data revolution', to draw attention to the pressing need to ensure no one gets left behind as development occurs. But it also serves as a reminder that the quality of the information on which many development interventions are based still leaves much to be desired. Considerable progress has been made, no doubt. And new methods like randomized controlled trials provide solid foundations for understanding what works, while new tools of data collection, like SMS surveys, direct beneficiary feedback and a range of "big data" can revolutionize how we collect data. But there is still a long way to go in understanding the nature and prevalence of poverty around the world and the domestic and external resources that go into addressing it. The data revolution is a call for transparency and accountability.  If taken seriously, this could transform development and perhaps be even more significant than the text of the post-2015 agenda that is being negotiated in New York.

 In other gatherings and meeting Homi has called for "100 surveys" programs and calling on agencies like to World Bank to scale up their Household Survey programs.


Think tanks: The Overseas Development Institute has been very active in stimulating discussions of the data revolution, but they don't seem to have a party line. There are a number of recent blogs on the topic. Overseas Development Institute also sponsors a separate website called that contains related documents. Below for easy access is a list of their most relevant blogs.

Morten Jerven: "What kind of 'data revolution' do we need for post-2015?"
Margo Cointreau & Mahesh Subedi: "My data revolution is not your data revolution"
Andrea Ordóñez: "What to measure: the challenge for the data revolution"
Molly Elgin-Cossart"Better Together: A partnership for the data revolution [Part I]"
Michael Green: "The Social Progress Index and Tackling the 'Data Apartheid'
Laura Bacon: "A True Data Revolution Would Leave No One Behind"
Rachel LitsterYouth Leadership in a Post 2015 World – A Big Idea that will Inspire a True Data Revolution
Sabina Alkire: "A new household survey to catalyse the data revolution"
Kenneth Okwaroh: "A data revolution to end poverty"
Molly Elgin-CossartBetter Together: A partnership for the data revolution [Part II]
Daniel HyslopResourcing a Data Revolution for Peace and Security
Sophie MitraStarting a disability-inclusive data revolution
Daniel HyslopData needs for the Peace and Security agenda
Ian ThorpeA bottom-up data revolution for post-2015


The Center for Global Development (CGD) is another very active think tank. CGD has done a number of background papers and blogs. Leading the discussions, Amanda Glassman is completing a report on the quality of data in the Africa region and what has worked well or less well in recent years. This report is a good Data Revolution discussion background paper, making a number of practical recommendations: 

  1. Add funding for national statistical systems and civil society in-country 
  2. Conditional funding based on progress towards data accuracy, timeliness, and openness in core statistical products
  3. Attention to the political economy of data 
  4. Learn and reflect lessons from other global health partnerships: 

CGD has also called for more funding for statistics in developing countries.


UN agencies: The main role of the UN Statistical Division (UNSD) so far has been to host some related seminars, such as the one noted above. Their concern is to make sure that the DR does not topple the well established guidelines and governance of official statistics and the role of the UN Statistical Commission. UNDP, with its Post-2015 coordinating role, is trying to define a mandate for itself during the course of DR discussions. UNDP indeed have an important role to play, but it is not clear what that will be. It was influential, for instance, in the early discussions leading to the MDGs and through its Human Development Report, but UNDP has not played a significant role in subsequent efforts to improve development statistics. Other UN specialized agencies such as UNICEF and regional commissions are also eager to be part of the discussion. The UN Global Pulse program has been somewhat active, especially in promoting the use of crowd-sourcing and big data activities, and could also play an important role as noted in one of their recent notes on this topic.


Paris21: As an existing forum bringing together donors and national statistical offices, Paris21 is a logical candidate for the coordinating body of a global partnership on development data. However, it would need to make a number of changes and scale up its activities and governance to take on a bigger role in the global coordination. Paris21 Manager, Johannes Jütting has made several presentations on the topic. Funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Paris21 is currently engaged in a stocktaking exercise to better figure out the potential scope for a data revolution at the country level.


Bilateral, multilateral, and regional agencies:

It seems that most of bilateral agencies are still trying to better understand the scale and scope of the data revolution and what role they should play. There may be different views internally, with some groups wanting more monitoring development goals, or data for aid effectiveness and others for long-term investments in country capacity building. Some bilateral agencies like DFID, are bringing the lessons from the past and pointing to important needs such as emphasis on quality than quantity, see the summary above. The international financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF, have not yet clearly defined their roles. IMF has been less present in many of the discussions. The World Bank focus has been mainly on pursuing its important existing programs (statistical capacity building, support for household surveys, and support for open data), but also brings to the discussion the data needs to monitor its two corporate goals: reducing poverty and increasing shared prosperity. Other important players such as African Development Bank are also missing from the discussions. There is, however, a Memorandum of Understanding, signed last year, between the United Nations World Bank, International Monetary Fund, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank that forms the basis for working together towards the post-2015 agenda and a data revolution.


Some skeptics: There are various skeptics we should listen to. Some worry that the data revolution is mostly about donors demanding data to monitor their investments or demonstrate aid effectiveness. Here is a blog asking them to go beyond that. 


CGD has cautioned that the data revolution should not focus exclusively on a limited number of indicators for monitoring post-2015 development goals.


There are also some who fear that a data revolution would drive support away from building national statistical capacity to other innovative data collection methods based on big data techniques and open data. Here is a recent blog on this. David Roodman is a major blogger and opinion maker who has been pointing to potential issues in blogs posted on Part 1  and Part 2.


NGOs and other interested parties: OXFAM has been somewhat vocal on the topic but mostly from the aid transparency angle. Development Initiatives has been involved with a number of discussions and has a good approach to linking the data revolution  to poverty reduction as noted in this blog​.


A proposal for global coordination of statistics has been put forward in a report published by the Oxford Martin School, "Now for the Long Term." The commission that oversaw this report includes an array of big names in international development and economics, including Amartya Sen, Nick Stern, Pascal Lamy, and Trevor Manuel. They recommend the creation of an agency they call WorldStat, which would "focus its attention on the implementation of agreed standards and capacity building for the accumulation and interpretation of data, particularly in the developing world."


Some more useful links to blogs and pages related to the data revolution


Homi Kharas: "A Data R​evolution for the post-2015 agenda?"​ 

UN Department on Economic and Social Affairs: "Managing the data revolution"​ ​

The World We Want: ​"Data and accountability for the Post-2015 Development Framework"​

Paris21: ​"Paris21 helps engineer a data revolution"​

Mead Over: ​"Using 'Value of Information' concepts to prioritize the data revolution"​