Why do we want to involve more mapping groups in the official statistics ecosystem

Co written with Katherine Townsend, Executive Director of Open Data Collaboratives

The United Nations has profusely promoted for more than two years now the so called “data revolution”. Although with some interesting advances, this is a long shot to tackle universal goals and targets using an ambitious agenda of indicators that UN member states will be expected to measure to frame their political policies over the next 15 years.

This global bet can be a great opportunity to build out more fruitful dialogues and action toward a central, stated goal of “leaving no one behind”. This promise means actually hearing problems from the people and their places, avoiding at all costs speaking theoretically about them in abstract. It is , at least theoretically, a vital opportunity to live up to an inclusive vision and generate, gather, and respond with practical outcomes to diverse global but also to local stakeholders.

Considering the current state of data and disruption globally, in the context of improving democratic action for the public good, no sector and community is growing more rapidly and with greater capacity and grassroots representation than the open mapping community. Should the United Nations and adoptees of the Sustainable Development Goals from nations to cities to organizations wish to truly embrace a transformative data revolution, they should look to the examples of open mapping and adapt and update their own operations and infrastructures to work with such local movements. By shifting traditional practices, especially those charged with achieving the SDGs like leadership, statistical organizations, and policy operatives, a sustained success can be realized with vibrant, diverse, and consistent collaboration across experiences and expertise.

A wider data ecosystem is needed

Up to now, most of the operations planned to monitor the 2030 agenda are mandated by governments to their National Statistics Offices (NSOs). Nevertheless — and after careful consideration of available resources — responsible policy makers are increasingly thinking on alternative strategies to deal with the endeavour. The development process is finding sense to the voices that claim for a wider data ecosystem and volume of data. This is greatly needed for a real data revolution, the same as seismic changes are produced by masses, not by the few.

Some use cases of civic technologies appear as alternative data and therefore a natural ally for the achievement of the SDGs. A pragmatic between-the-lines reading of the present big data and crowdsourcing trends suggests that governments need to reinvent the way they produce their data, considering also the attractive contributions of civic infomediaries and data visualization reporters, among other innovative civil society advocators. Eventually, this thinking could integrate into a healthy ecosystem to yield data in reusable formats, with a final value higher than the original source.

This interpretation of facts suggests that data revolution is evidencing a gradual dissolution of differences between official and unofficial statistics and between users and producers, and is even inaugurating other merges. Reality is outdating the traditional “productive” and “aggregative” approach most NSOs have, demanding them to adopt more innovative data management deeds. Inspiringly, some NSOs and NGI (National Geographic Institutions) are daring to try on new roles in the global data scene: they are leaving behind their traditional approaches to substitute them with a more “supervisory” agenda: committing to broader partnerships, promoting streamline certifications in data for third parties, supporting hybrid use cases and stimulating the data market. Indeed, many are thinking to develop more “dynamic” databases rather than embracing the “historic“ philosophy of data. With a strategy like this, resources could be freed and NSO efforts could be focused in servicing the infrastructure needed to contain the data coming from other sources more than actually “owning” the data.

To balance this virtual shift in roles many non traditional actors are naturally making advances in data production. Civil society is strengthening its capacities and a new generation of civic tech activists is beginning to lead the path to public engagement in nationwide projects, like health campaigns, low cost housing projects, urban planning data collection and humanitarian relief in general. The newcomers are promoting along with governments of all levels collaborative and data-focused projects, together with opening and enriching the production of the collected data, adding more diverse and disaggregated sources.

Some georeferenced use cases of collaboration

The Building Canada 2020 project

The tools that civic technologists bring to the table, especially those that are geo-referenced, are increasingly demonstrating their value to contribute to a more richer SDG data infrastructure in the most diverse statistical organizations: Statistics Canada is working with the OpenStreetMap community to build a single inventory of the location and attributes of every building in Canada running a pilot to test if qualitative data can be produced collaboratively; the NGO Open UP SA is collaborating with Stats South Africa to produce a Census Reporter; Stats Up program — from GeoCensos community — is being offered as an entry level opportunity to train geodata entrepreneurs to aid Latin American NSOs. There are signs that this is more a real trend than isolated groups working randomly with governments: INE, the Chilean NSO admitted in their last abbreviated census that one out of four surveyors came from civil society, revealing the power of these groups to service data producers.

On a broader scale and led by United Nations Member States, there is a great opportunity to extend the value of civic technologists into systems of mapping for global development. UN-GGIM (Global Geospatial Information Management) which aims to address global challenges regarding the use of geospatial information, is championing the topic of geographic data integration with statistics in development agendas. This organization is offering to serve as a body for global policy making in the field of geospatial information management for all governments and the private sector. Nevertheless, UN-GGIM does not include much of civil society among its members. A commitment to linking geospatial management and civil society for the future can be a powerful ally for the SDG endeavour to this UN group.

Why civic technologies for statistics?

Bringing in civic tech actors to the statistics ecosystem can integrate richness and deepness to inclusive datasets from the grassroots thus rediscovering novel territorial relations and coverage in data. In fact it is citizen-driven data that can turn the tide toward goals that are truly revolutionary, particularly when the infrastructure includes what are currently the most underserved and vulnerable communities and territories.

Today, several civic tech groups have employed and expanded open geo data for the benefit of numerous vulnerable populations, unravelling the paradigms of those who we are holding up when we vow to “leave no one behind”. The skills and actions of these civic tech organizations can aid the geo data collection process leveraged by a vibrant open data advocacy and bringing new added values, accessibility, transparency and a basic statistical quality to enable the harvesting, use and reuse of geo data for the welfare of many countries and territories. Civic tech passion and seemingly boundless perseverance may only reach full potential when global institutions, like the U.N. and leading statistical agencies, recognize the contributions from the bottom of the data ecosystem with systemic shifts in culture and operations incorporating the very best of these high-spirited movements into the steady methodical and sustained workings of stable official bodies.

International organizations, governments and their NSOs have an unprecedented number of challenges ahead if they want to develop with classical tools the 2030 agenda. The above facts and ideas kindly remind that an unprecedented revolution of data resources is going on in streets and also in remote corners of the planet. International organizations, governments civil society and other vital actors can and must come as one creative power to target economic, political, environmental and social issues at every territorial level. The rise of technology and civic activism provokes the rise of a new class of impact from the masses as the line between producers of data and users is getting blurry. Therefore, the challenge lies in the support of novel collaboration models between governments and civic tech startups in the imminent SDG endeavour. It is also needed that the statistics’ world embraces the world of inclusive data grassroots that are making good use of technology in local contexts at times of changing priorities. An empowered civil society that produces daily more and more data pulsates for a revolution like this one. One that maps a better world together.