Data: for the people, by the people

By Claire Melamed, Executive Director, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

Photo: UN Women/Alfredo Guerrero

You often hear about people being ‘reduced’ to numbers, as if the act of being counted and included in a data set somehow lessens their power and the importance of their voices.

Recent events suggest the opposite. Numbers are an important weapon for the powerless. Making your voice heard through numbers can make that voice louder and stronger.

Take yourself back a few weeks to the start of the #MeToo campaign. Remember that first tweet?

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Alyssa Milano, and those who responded to her call, were, implicitly, putting their faith in the power of large numbers to persuade the powers-that-be that change is needed. What followed was, we all know, a deluge of both stories and numbers. The combination of the shocking, yet wearily unshocking, stories, and the sheer scale of the numbers certainly have given people “a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

They’ve also given women a new sense of power and confidence. Not, of course, all women, and a social media campaign can’t bring down the patriarchy. But being counted as members of the growing #MeToo community has allowed millions of women’s voices to be heard.

‘Reduced to numbers’? Not so much — rather amplified and empowered, a million-fold, by numbers.

Being visible in the numbers is part of the arsenal of the campaigner — but also of the policymaker. In politics, being in the numbers means being in the argument. Maybe ‘not everything that can be counted, counts’ (I can never hear that without picturing a finger being wagged in front of my face), but not being counted really counts, and not in a good way.

In the UK it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century that the health of the poorest people in the country was monitored in any kind of systematic way. Leaving aside the slight irony that governments started to care about the health of the poorest people when they wanted to line them up for mass slaughter in the Boer War and World War I, the discovery that in some areas more than half of working class men were malnourished or otherwise too ill to fight was part of what generated the political support for the creation of the UK’s National Health Service. Counting people’s health made them count, politically.

Yet some people are still not visible enough.

While millions of kids now go to primary school — it’s one of the real success stories of the last 20 years — in many countries an intractable core of children remain who don’t. Many campaigners argue that, for at least a significant number of those children, having a physical disability is what stops them.

But it’s not tackled because the disability — the thing that is stopping them from going to school — is not visible in the data. If they are recorded at all, it’s as kids, but not as kids with a disability. That’s why campaigners for the rights of people with disabilities have been at the forefront of that the movement to make people more visible in the data.

Governments, on the whole, want to get all kids in school. But without the right numbers, they can’t know which characteristics are relevant for kids who aren’t in school, and thus can’t know what to do to get them there.

So next time someone starts pontificating about how ‘not everything that can be counted, counts’ or sighing sadly about people being ‘reduced’ to numbers, remember the women and the men and the children whose lives are better in all sorts of ways thanks to being counted. We hear a lot about the ‘data revolution’ these days. But data, used well, has always been revolutionary.

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