Welcome to the Data Revolution Advisory Group – but will it be a revolution driven by people?


A warm welcome to Ban Ki-Moon’s new independent expert advisory group on the data revolution. While the data revolution conversation has been bubbling away over the last year, it’s been difficult to see how it will be brought into the official post-2015 process. With the announcement of the expert group, that missing piece of the puzzle has become clearer. The group will be tasked to input to the UN SG’s much anticipated Synthesis Report, providing input into the fourth chapter on the accountability framework (the other three covering the background, goals and targets proposed by the OWG, and financing).

Benita, 4 years old, from Ruyenzi, Rwanda uses a phone

Benita, 4 years old, from Ruyenzi, Rwanda using a mobile. How will her voice be heard in the data revolution?

So far, so good. But looking at the press release, a couple of questions occurred to me. As I’ve previously pointed out, the data revolution is in danger of missing out on the key constituency who are meant to benefit most from the collective endeavour to create a global development agenda: the very people who on a daily-basis experience poverty, injustice, discrimination and exclusion. Yet reading through the list I failed to spot anyone who would obviously champion this perspective. When the Secretary General High Level Panel was formed in 2012, Graҫa Machel, among others, supported the perspectives of people living in poverty, and many Panellists reached out to engage with different groups.

This contributed to the strength of the Panel’s report, which understood that the post-2015 development agenda needs to place people at the centre and to hear their stories. (In comparison to the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, which was heavily criticised for failing to open its doors to stakeholder participation.) While I understand that the Data Revolution Advisory Group is planning to consult with civil society, how will it hear the perspectives of people on the margins within such a tight timeframe?

The expert group should remember that data is not just technical and that the data revolution should be more than statistics, new technologies, and number crunching. The data revolution must also be about power. Information without a purpose is meaningless but who and how that purpose is defined is inherently political. Qualitative data, gathered from people’s experiences, stories and histories, play an important part in understanding what sustainable development is and how it is delivered. The Participate initiative, which gathered knowledge from the margins for the post-2015 process, is a good place to understand this contribution.

Don't forget that deciding who does what with data is inherently political.

Don’t forget that deciding who does what with data is inherently political.

The Data Revolution group is called to assess opportunities to strengthen accountability across the national, regional and global levels. The newly convened group would do well to remember that accountability should be towards people, and within the post-2015 process, it is our duty to hear the perspectives, experiences and realities of those who are most often ignored or unheard, who are most often powerless.

I was also surprised that there seem to be no representatives from countries who genuinely struggle with a lack of capacity in National Statistical Offices. Although the Panel has 24 members, I couldn’t find an expert from an LDC among them. I think this is a shame – if we’re serious about addressing the obstacles to implementing a new development agenda, we should hear from the countries that have the least resource to support it.

For what revolution was ever successful without people?

Three recommendations to the Panel to wish them well:

  1. Be open to learning from different perspectives that complement traditional data collection methodologies. Participate resources are a good place to start.
  2. Include an expert who will champion grass-roots realities and understands data collection from people’s perspectives. An organisation like Spatial Collective in Kenya is one option.
  3. Give enough time for civil society consultations for marginalised people to participate, not just large, well-resources NGOs.


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3 Responses to “Welcome to the Data Revolution Advisory Group – but will it be a revolution driven by people?”

  1. Alan Hudson Says:

    Involving CIVICUS might be useful too.

  2. Bill Anderson Says:

    I don’t think it only a lack of civil society and citizen voices. It is the overall top down – bottom up balance. If national statistics systems are not at the heart of the data revolution there will be no revolution. And if the voices of the representatives of national statistics systems are not loud enough they will be swamped by global bureaucrats.

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