What does “data” mean to the everyday Tanzanian?

A recent conversation with “wananchi” reminded us of the challenge of talking about data in a context where its definition is fluid.

A simulation of our forthcoming Listening Campaigns reminded us of the challenge of talking about data in a language where its definition is fluid.

“Mzee wa Data” is the Swahili slang for “the one who speaks facts”. Mzee Wa Data is that person who knows how many goals Simba Sports Club have scored in the Tanzanian Premier League, or how far the distance is between Songea and Mbeya. He or she is the person with obscure knowledge. To these folks, “data” simply follows the traditional definition: facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis.

The challenge comes when we change the context around the question, “What is data?”. The average Tanzanian tends to relate a couple of Kiswahili words to “data”, and each word is used in different contexts.

For instance, it’s common to hear words like takwimu (figures), namba (numbers), taarifa (report), habari (news or information) and matokeo (results) in relation to data. In some cases, the word “data” itself is also used in Kiswahili, making the the situation even more confusing. (Google Translate, for example, simply translates “data” to Kiswahili using the word “data”). For these reasons, asking someone the question, “have you ever used data to make a decision?” — Je, ushawahi kutumia data kufanya uamuzi? — can create all sorts of problems. The question demands a few more clarifications: Have I ever used facts to make decisions? Have I ever employed numbers to solve a problem? Have I ever relied on the news to answer difficult questions?

Figuring out these distinctions is particularly important for Data Zetu. Next month, we’ll visit with local communities to discuss their daily challenges in a series we’re calling “Listening Campaigns”. In those conversations, we aim to learn what “data” means to them — including how they currently use it to address issues they are grappling with in their communities.

Tell us: What does “Data” mean to you?

As practice, in February we conducted a simulation of this Listening Campaign. We asked ten respondents whether they have ever used data to make decisions. Before answering, everyone asked what we meant by “data”. When data was defined as takwimu (figures), most people said “No”. But when we defined “data” as taarifa (report or news), almost everyone (nine out of ten) told us they had. One respondent, for example, shared her story of when she decided to adopt a certain family planning method because she received taarifa about how that method was more safe.

Data remains a complex concept to define, even for specialists who use the word in their day-to-day activities. Each Tanzanian has their own perception of what “data” is. Our task at Data Zetu, therefore, is to focus on placing data in its appropriate context, so that it’s meaningful and relevant to everyday people. In some places, that might mean using the word taarifa, and elsewhere it might be something else. Uncovering insights like these are at the core of the Data Zetu program, and we’re excited to share more here soon.

Have you faced similar challenges defining “data” in different contexts? We look forward to hearing your take on this post and on anything data related in the comments section.