A problem-driven approach to fostering data use
By making information accessible and relevant to everyday pain points, we can more effectively foster communities of data users.
This blog post was published as part of the Data Zetu project. Data Zetu is now an initiative of the Tanzania dLab, a local NGO that promotes innovation and data literacy through a premier center of excellence. For more information about the dLab, visit www.dlab.or.tz. For more information about the Data Zetu project, visit www.irex.org.
UPDATE: Our team recently published as open data the information we collected in the activities described here. View the post about that here.
This month, Data Zetu is visiting wards in Dar es Salaam, listening to the everyday challenges that citizens themselves identify in their communities. Through facilitated discussions and workshops in Temeke district — a densely populated part of the city (its wards have almost 30,000 people per square kilometer)— we’re collecting a roster of community-identified pain points (or, as our partner Code for Tanzania describes them: “things that keep people up at night”).
These pain points are, unsurprisingly, wide-ranging. Many of them focus on issues related to unemployment, lack of education, high HIV rates, and drug use on the streets of Temeke. These are vast, complicated challenges — called “wicked problems” — which are hard to define, have many (or no) possible solutions, and require diverse approaches to tackle. Because of this, even the process of identifying, unpacking, and prioritizing these challenges can be incredibly challenging; in an upcoming post, Data Zetu partner Sahara Sparks will share more details about this process and lessons we’re learning along the way.
But difficulties aside, we’re now close to finishing our problem identification sessions — which we’re calling Listening Campaigns — in all four of our priority wards in Temeke. After reflecting on lessons learned around implementation, Data Zetu will move on to Mbeya and Kyela, two districts near the border of Malawi, where we’ll continue these activities.
What do these pain points have to do with a program designed to promote data use?
Data Zetu (“our data” in Swahili) is seeking to extend the data revolution — an umbrella term referring to the transformative potential of today’s information age to promote better decision making, transparency, civic engagement, and governance — to the subnational level. In our case, we aim to foster the use of data to inform decisions in communities and governments at the hyperlocal level.
But we believe that this mission isn’t something that can be achieved simply by helicoptering in to a community and, for example, conducting some training to improve data management skills. Nor can it be accomplished just by building some dashboards and presenting them to local government officials. These methods have been tried before, and while they do achieve some important progress, they are rarely successful in transforming cultures towards being more data-driven.
What we need instead is to help make data relevant to everyday people, because when something is relatable and accessible, it has more value. And if people assign more value to data, it might begin to play a larger part of their everyday lives.
That’s where our pain points come in. By repurposing established tools to understand and deconstruct challenges — such as the problem definition canvas — we’re collecting a community-assembled list of issues that are important to them. Over the next few weeks, we’ll digest the vast amounts of information collected in our Listening Campaigns, and then we’ll prioritize those pain points which we believe can be tackled with the help of data.
Grounded in a deep understanding of the community-defined problem statements, we’ll then work with local organizations and government representatives to build data skills that help them meaningfully find, use, share, or merge datasets that directly relate to some of those pain points.
We’ll also work with those groups to build or improve on digital and offline tools that make information about those pain points more accessible to the everyday citizen, in order to help them tackle those everyday challenges. Depending on the pain points we identify, these could range from dashboards that merge data from different sectors so that journalists can publish deeper stories, to TV programming that highlights Tanzanian leaders and resources they use to make evidence-based decisions.
What problems will we solve with this problem-driven approach?
We appreciate that we’re not necessarily going to solve many of these pain points through better use of information. Challenges like unemployment or high HIV rates are massive, intractable issues that themselves are linked with broader, complex systems.
Rather, through facilitated discussions that deconstruct these challenges, we’ll identify the pieces that might be addressed through better use, access, sharing, or publication of data. By tackling those pieces, we’ll be better equipped to surface specific, tangible use stories — that is, examples of data being used to address a challenge that someone faces — that demonstrate how the data revolution is meaningfully reaching these hyperlocal communities.
In the process, we might also address some other problems that persist in the data ecosystem. For example, by working closely with CBOs, local government representatives, and citizens to surface these pain points and co-design activities that use data to address them, we’re more likely to see long-term positive changes in the perceived value of data within the subnational ecosystem. This could instill meaningful sustainability to our efforts.
The Data Zetu experiment
This vision is, for now, just that — a vision. We are at the early stages of the process, having only just begun to define the pain points that will determine what activities we design and implement, and with which local organizations. Together with MCC and PEPFAR, we’re embracing this opportunity to experiment and will report back here soon with much more specific details, such as the actual pain points we’ve identified and ways that our activities will help address them by making relevant data more accessible.
But we do know we’re not the only ones pursuing this problem-driven approach to data use. For example, others have had success using open data as catalyst for problem solving, and there’s a vast school of thought about problem-driven approaches to promote culture change within a specific system. And a recent GovLab report on the global impact of open data urges us to focus on key problem areas where data can add value. We’re excited to learn from and amplify these existing efforts in Tanzania’s subnational context.
We also expect to encounter challenges on this journey. For example, defining problem statements with communities can lead to inflated expectations that we might not be able to meet— especially if we can’t find meaningful data to address those challenges. But we’re exploring ways to mitigate these and other obstacles (subscribe to receive updates on future posts about our Engagement and Data Fellows, as well as our plans to fill hyperlocal data gaps!).
In any case, we continue on the right track and look forward to sharing back more updates soon. Until then, we’ll continue to listen to Tanzanians through our Listening Campaigns, in order to identify the ways that data can help address the everyday problems they’re facing. Only then will we know whether the data revolution can take root in local communities across Tanzania.