The Data Revolution in Developing Countries Has a Long Way to Go

Functioning governments require large and growing amounts of data. Birth and death rates. Crime and weather patterns. Demographic and traffic changes. Governments since at least Roman times have always sought more and better data. Civil society organizations, the private sector, media outlets and governments look to official statistics for accurate and actionable information. Governments that are democratically responsive to their people want increasingly better information and will act upon the stories they tell.

As they become wealthier and freer, societies invest more money in tracking important things. For example, officials in Myanmar during a recent visit told me that there are approximately 500 people carrying out basic statistics countrywide, compared with approximately 5,300 and 16,000 in Vietnam (a bit richer) and Indonesia (middle income), respectively. Naturally, as new technologies emerge, the number of people may not be an accurate way to measure a country’s commitment to gathering accurate and actionable data.

For now, the collection of accurate and timely data, especially in the developing world, is often logistically difficult and expensive. In launching its second round of global goals – Sustainable Development Goals – the United Nations also formed the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD). Though noble, its call for a ‘revolution in data’ by addressing the “crisis of non-existent, inaccessible or unreliable data” is easier said than done.

Data Word Map
Photo from Wikimedia user Camelia.boban under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License

Countries like Myanmar have recently emerged from long periods of autocracy and conflict. For decades, whether by custom or by law, the Burmese government deliberately withheld information from its citizens and the broader international community. Even after periods of reform, data is still largely collected on paper or called in and entered into spreadsheets. I visited several government agencies in Myanmar and could see that most workers had impossibly large stacks of paper on their desks instead of computers. One diplomat estimated that only 1 in 30 civil servants has access to a computer – and the necessary electricity and training to use it – in some ministries.

In places like Myanmar concepts that are used in the US or the developed world such as ‘data revolution’ and ‘big data’ are foreign notions. Though we do indeed globally live in an era of ‘big data’ – according to IBM we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day – Burmese bureaucrats are more interested in acquiring and disseminating basic information that is readily available and relevant. I raised ‘big data’ with at least six senior civil servants and not a single one had heard of the concept. One UN diplomat told me that Myanmar has to first get ‘small data’ right i.e. the basic data collection skills across ministries functioning governments need to effectively deliver services. Accurate population data in Shan province. The number of third-graders in Mandalay. Malaria rates in Dawei, etc.

 Certainly, some ‘small data’ can come from modern technologies such as remote sensors, cell phones, satellite information and digitizing information. A recent proliferation of mobile data acquisition efforts makes direct citizen and customer interaction easier and cheaper than it was even five years ago. Such efforts are already producing important insights in hard-to-reach, data-impoverished areas, often before traditional statistical agencies.

Though in a more nascent stage of development, satellite data has potential. From measuring the size of urban slums to tracking the ownership of rural farmland to disaster impacts and response, satellites have the ability to produce accurate data, as is the case with a joint NASA/USAID system SERVIRMore satellites are launched every year by an expanded group of countries and companies, which will inevitably lower the cost of data acquisition and thus increase its accessibility.

But for these data to be useful, there first has to be computer and internet access and basic numeracy skills for the folks who are going interpret and package this data in forms that are actionable by governments. In Myanmar I was told some civil servants cannot actually calculate mathematical averages; without these skills, even the simplest SMS surveys, satellite data, and new collection technologies will be futile.

A senior official in Myanmar’s statistical agency told me that its goal was to provide quality, accurate timely and comprehensive data that can be translated into better policy. However, for this agency to accomplish just that, it needs more than data itself. It needs better writing, research, and analytical skills for its staff. These are all achievable but it will take time, effort and money.

Even when data are successfully collected and utilized, two major pitfalls await. The first is the potential for politicization of the data. It is no surprise that data are used for political gain. An official census has not been conducted in Lebanon since 1932 (when the population was 51% Christian), largely because of the political sensitivity of religious balance. Throughout its half-century in power, Myanmar’s military junta regularly lied about its growth rate and, even in this period of relative democratic reform, underreports its Muslim population. Under the Kirchner government, Argentina gutted its official statistics agency and produced false inflation data for ten years; the Economist and other publications eventually stopped using these data. The international community should look for similar ways of holding countries accountable to high data standards.

The second pitfall relates to privacy. Household level health, economic, and demographic data are crucial when determining future government programs. This is also personal information where serious privacy concerns abound. In the U.S. we are preoccupied with companies ‘data mining’ to sell us more targeted products. Imagine if information on your HIV status or annual income was publically available; how closely would you want your privacy guarded? Efforts like Institutional Review Boards address some of these concerns, but they are typically only available to researchers at elite universities. Given that cyber-attacks are also an increasing threat – even to US security clearance data – I imagine there is a long way to go before government officials in places like Myanmar have the capacity to properly protect privacy.

 Responsible uses of data involve balancing political considerations and privacy concerns. Groups like the Responsible Data Forum offer excellent resources on how and when to use data. Ultimately, data should not only measure progress, it should inspire it. Collectors must balance the potential value of data versus the risks of misuse.

Neither the United Nations, World Bank nor the U.S. government has a full grasp on how much is spent on improving data collection and utilization in developing countries—a seemingly obscure but actually very important topic. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data estimates around $650 million per year is needed to collect data, only $250 million of which is currently funded. While likely not a comprehensive figure (ex. it only relates to the sustainable development goals and only includes international donor funds), it is notable that even such targeted efforts are woefully underfunded. Aid agencies such as the World Bank or USAID should ensure that the countries have funding for basic skills first and then look at context and country-specific technology fixes or techniques that increase the speed and ease with which governments, civil society, and the private sector can collect – and use – relevant data.

 The 2015 launch of the GPSDD is a step in the right direction. New technologies and increasing political will for acquiring and using better data are signs of progress. But without the skills and infrastructure needed to utilize data, the ‘data revolution’ will remain an aspirational notion for many developing countries. 

Article Published in Forbes.com on February 25, 2017.

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