Exploring How Data Can Make A Difference: A Call for Collective Action

Alan Hudson, Executive Director

July 6, 2017

Proponents of open data and the “data revolution” have played a hugely important role in highlighting the importance of data in addressing social challenges and supporting progress towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. In recent years however, the conversation has moved on (see for instance, the selection of posts from the 2015 International Open Data Conference), with an increased recognition that making data available and open is only one piece of the puzzle and that if data is to make a difference, we need to think differently about how it might do so, and then act differently as a result.

The recent thinking of the Open Data Charter and the Transparency and Accountability Initiative on rethinking and mapping open data for accountability (blogpost here, concept note here) provides a very helpful way forward. Having a clear conceptual framework is key to understanding and improving the open data landscape, and presenting their model — a value chain model (see their Figure 1) — provides a useful spur to further thinking about how data can make a difference.

Figure 1: The value chain of data

Over the last few months, we’ve been giving some preliminary thought to a complementary exercise which would entail looking across and making connections amongst the wide variety of efforts to explore how data can make a difference which are being undertaken by various initiatives and organizations working to address governance-related challenges.

As we’ve been scoping out this work, we’ve been in touch with a number of organizations including: Civicus and their Data-Shift initiative; Development Gateway and their Results Data Initiative; the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development and their data roadmaps work; the Data Collaboratives for Local Impact program led by the Millennium Challenge Corporation and funded by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); the Natural Resource Governance Institute and their Resource Governance Index; the Open Contracting Partnership (see their open contracting journey); the Open Data Charter and their plans for road-testing their Open Up Guides; Publish What You Pay and their data extractors initiative; and, Publish What You Fund (see here for some of their recent thinking on how transparency can make a difference).

All of these organizations and initiatives are giving serious thought to how data can play a role in addressing the challenges that they are focused on. Many are looking to move beyond an emphasis on making data available and open, some are giving additional thought to questions of users, use and impact, and others still are adopting an approach which starts with problems rather than with data.

Our thinking at Global Integrity has been evolving too. Since 2015, our strategy (and tagline) is all about “data, learning and action for open governance”. One of our most innovative and exciting pieces of work involves supporting and exploring the use of fiscal governance data to address specific sectoral or service delivery challenges in Mexico at both federal and state level through our “Treasure Hunts” methodology (video, in Spanish, here).

More recently, we’ve been in conversation with colleagues at the Open Data Charter about whether and how open data can be used to address the political dynamics and incentives that drive corruption (see this video, particularly from 35 minutes, 35 seconds). And, last but by no means least, we’ve been talking with the Open Government Partnership, and the Open Data Charter, about learning cycles that are focused on particular problems (or policy commitments). Our thinking is that such learning cycles, supported by data about the problem in question, and designed to engage the political dynamics and incentives that are at the root of governance challenges, have the potential to close the gap between policy commitments and implementation, driving progress toward impact (see figure 2, for a not-quite-right effort to convey this).

Figure 2: Problem-focused politically-engaged learning cycles

Many organizations are exploring, in a variety of ways, how data might make a difference. We’re in discussions with a number of them about whether and how we might be able to support their efforts. But beyond this bilateral engagement, our hunch — informed by our conversations with these various organizations and initiatives — is that making connections across these various efforts could be really useful.

A starting point, and something that we have kicked off, could entail looking across the initiatives and posing the following sorts of questions (in effect teasing out a theory of change): what problem are you focused on?; what impact are you aiming to have?; what are the political dynamics and incentives around the problem?; what processes are you supporting to address those dynamics and incentives?; what role does data (and data about what) play in those processes?; who do you see as the users and what do you see as the uses of the data?; how have potential users’ been consulted about what data they would find useful?; and, what’s your approach to assessing impact?

Such an exercise might also include exploring what data organizations are collecting about their interventions and effectiveness. That is, not just data about the prevalence of bribery, for instance, but also data about the activities that an organization is undertaking to address bribery, what traction those activities are getting, and whether and how they are helping to make a difference. Indeed, we think that combining data about problems and data about efforts to tackle those problems, and the effectiveness of those efforts, is key to accelerating progress towards solutions.

A more ambitious approach to collective action would build on that initial analysis, to see whether and how insights gained from one organization’s explorations of how data can make a difference might inform other organizations’ explorations and actions. This could entail organizations supporting, mentoring, and challenging each other along the way. More ambitious still would be an effort — building on the investments that have been made in data interoperability — to make substantive connections amongst various initiatives’ efforts to give greater attention to the use of data to address particular problems, including in their work in particular countries. This is something that members of the Follow the Money Network have been giving some thought to, and could be a central piece of that network’s possible evolution towards being focused on supporting and learning alongside efforts to open fiscal governance in countries around the world.

The increased interest in exploring how data can make a difference is hugely welcome. Many of us are finding our way. Connecting our efforts — in a light touch way initially, but with more ambitious approaches possible if initial investments proved useful — could make these explorations more fruitful. If you’d like to be part of a collective effort, please do give us a shout. And/or add your feedback in the comments below!

Thanks for feedback on an initial draft of this post to: Josh Powell, Development Gateway; Agnieszka Rawa, Millennium Challenge Corporation; Gavin Hayman, Open Contracting Partnership; Robert Palmer, Open Data Charter; Rupert Simon, Publish What You Fund; Elisa Peter, Publish What You Pay; and Michael Jarvis, Transparency and Accountability Initiative.