The Data Revolution: Orwellian nightmare or boon to people power?

The Data Revolution: Orwellian nightmare or boon to people power?


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‘Algorithmic regulation’ – a new term coined by Silicon Valley tech pioneer Timothy O’Reilly is an equally fascinating and terrifying notion.

O’Reilly, (who also coined the term ‘Web 2.0’) describes the way in which the so-called ‘internet of things’ – the web of connections between smart phones, cars, computers and fridges, constantly assimilates new information to amend rules for optimal outcomes. This, he suggests, could eventually extend to governance. Taken to the extreme, algorithms could use constant real-time feedback to make decisions about the allocation of resources without the need for the state-citizen interactions. Foreign Policy highlights Singapore as perhaps the first case study of this kind of approach in action.

That this is now possible, signals a data revolution is happening. But for those interested in the implications for human development, a data revolution must mean more. It requires concrete investments in official statistics, the development of norms and standards to ensure new forms of data collection are managed responsibly, and the disclosure of information can empower citizens to make their own decisions.

With this in mind, a group of experts from statistical authorities, multilateral agencies, tech firms and NGOs met in London in July to discuss how we harness the political energy around the data revolution to ensure some concrete improvements in data, accountability and ultimately outcomes for the world’s poorest people.

The group concluded in its outcome document that what is required is both evolution and revolution.

The increasing volumes of information make official statistics even more relevant; we will need benchmarks against which we can evaluate the quality of data sources and technical standards that allow cross-referencing and nuanced interpretations of changes in official statistics. Yet a survey of the capacity and independence of official statistical agencies in many developing countries makes for sobering reading.

An evolution in the expansion and investment in best practice, in the frequency of data collection, the ability of survey data to relate to official statistics is critical.

But we also need to harness the power of innovation – capturing the revolution in technology that will put information directly into the hands of millions of people – while enabling the collection of billions of data points in real-time – allowing for more effective monitoring and planning.

Harnessing these benefits requires investments now. For those of us who think about advocacy, we know that political will to do something about technical issues comes rarely, and leaves quickly. The negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the need for data to monitor progress towards them provides such a window.

So what should we do about it? I think this means agreeing on a high level moment that can convene Heads of State, business leaders, NGOs and donors behind an action plan – let’s call it a data compact [h/t Amanda Glasmann].

This event, and the commitments flowing from it, would raise the profile of data in the decision making processes, secure new financial investments for improving official statistics, but would also encourage adherence to common technical standards and ethics in the collection, ownership and use of data from the myriad of actors who will are fast becoming the future information creators and consumers. We would love to see:

  • Donors agree to invest in a new fund that encourages innovative practices from both small businesses and government bodies.
  • Big firms and governments agree to a new code of practice on the collection and disclosure of personal information.
  • Government commit to making their statistical agencies politically independent and non-partisan removing systemic biases in administrative data systems.
  • NGOs and journalists commit to interpreting this information in a way that allows citizens to hold governments and businesses to account.

If this moment were to occur on World Population Day (11th July 2015), it would not only ensure that the right kinds of investments are being made to track the new Sustainable Development Goals announced two months later.

It would also send the right signals that these goals are not simply aspirational words emerging from UN diplomats, but that they can form a ‘dashboard’ for any citizen to track the progress of their government against globally agreed commitments.

If this where to become a reality, the data revolution, more than being a threat to the state-citizen relationship, could oil the wheels of citizen accountability, improving service delivery, the efficient use of resources, and ultimately human development outcomes.

But to take advantage of this rapidly closing window of opportunity, we need a well-equipped group of champions who can advocate for these changes in the lead up to the 2015 summit when the Sustainable Development Goals are announced.

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