Reaching the bottom billions with data for sustainable development

To increase the impact of our projects, we aim to reach as many people as possible, especially those people most affected by social and environmental issues. But there’s a number of big challenges to overcome if you want to achieve this in a meaningful way, especially if they’re far from the nearest town, illiterate, time poor or don’t have many contacts. In this post I want to give my perspective on these challenges and what you can do to overcome them.

But first some background. At vizzuality we’ve worked on a number of projects to put data in people’s hands so they can understand a certain situation and act on it. Global Forest Watch and NGO Aid Map are two great examples of this: provide the world with open, transparent data through a beautiful interface that’s easy to navigate and understand, and you start seeing actions to improve our world. Our latest release with WRI has these principles running through its core.

My job at vizzuality is to make sure our products reach as many people as possible and present data in a way people can understand. So over the last few months I’ve been dipping into journals from a huge range of disciplines (information science, library studies, behavioural economics, psychology…) to find out how different people across the world find information to make decisions.

But more than that, I look at how the poorest people in the world are accessing data. If someone trusts us to visualise their data, we are wasting the opportunity to reach new audiences yearning for this data if we only build a ‘data portal’ for European and American researchers. I use my research to make sure that our products can be seen by the people most affected by environment and development issues, who are in a position to make the biggest leaps towards our lofty Global Goals.

With Global Forest Watch you can assess the scale of forest change and some of the factors driving that change

So here’s the main points I’ve learned this year about how people access information, or what stops them getting the information they need.

People preferred; whether that’s a friend, family member, neighbour or an expert. In contexts where access to information is relatively scarce, whether that’s a farm in Somerset with bad broadband signal or a smallholder in rural Uganda an hour from the nearest town, nearby human beings are extremely useful. This is especially true when you add in other constraints like illiteracy and a lack of time. In some cases this can be a good strategy, as you can get really precise experience of good and bad strategies for your specific location. But in other cases, relying on just the people around you can lead to continual use of damaging practices.

If you know more people you can access more and better information. If you have a bigger network — in terms of numbers, diversity of expertise and number of highly knowledgeable contacts — then you can call on much more reliable information. Women are often at a disadvantage where social constructions or access to assets reduce the size or reach of their networks, or generally constrain their ability to access information.

‘Good’ is often good enough. If you are happy with a certain piece of information and it appears correct, whether it is objectively correct or not, you will use it and return to that source repeatedly. So leaving a feeling of satisfaction and joy when new information is discovered might be an important factor for it actually being used, rather than simply proving it’s objectively better.

Time is of the essence. One aspect of poverty that isn’t immediately visible to many is time poverty. There’s the oft-used example of young children across the world who walk 2 hours every day before school to get water for their family or get taken out of school early to help manage crops and livestock. If you’re busy surviving, you won’t have that much time to go and search for information outside your networks, especially if you are unsure of the quality of that information or if you will even be able to find an answer.

Mobile moving slowly. The growth of mobile subscription bases in some parts of the world is phenomenal, with double digit growth predicted in Africa by 2020. For a generation that’s likely to never own a laptop or desktop (the so-called ‘post-desktop’ world), cheap mobiles could provide a step-change in the ability of the poorest communities to access the world’s information. While there are a bunch of targeted smartphone apps for a ‘developing country’ perspective, in many places the ‘people preferred’ mantra still holds true: people prefer communicating by voice or by text. So for many at the moment, phones are more like ways to extend a network, to reach people that can give them information.

But everyone loves a library. Quite a number of papers lauded libraries as a solution to a number of the problems poorer people have accessing information. The mixture of human curation, translation, trust and proximity of community libraries is held up as a way to transfer large amounts of information to people in a way they can understand. If we empowered expert librarians with digital services (leading research from around the world, lessons from the field etc), they could start to feed that data accurately to the people that need it most.

So what’s the take home message for a data design company like Vizzuality?

  • if you want to democratise data right now, get it to the bottom billion, you’re best off empowering key people (like librarians) to provide the latest data in a clear way. Then when literacy and tech ownership rates are high enough, we can start to do more mobile services for all.
  • if you want people to use, and continue to use, your data they need to be satisfied with the experience. So the beauty and speed of a web or phone service will be just as important as the accuracy of the data itself for convincing people to use your data.
  • if you want all people to use your data, you need to go to them, especially where poverty, illiteracy, gender inequality, small social networks or time pressures mean information is not or cannot be sought.
  • The vanilla ‘one-stop-shop’ won’t secure the global goals; a targeted mission to build the whole information infrastructure, including the vectors (libraries, phones or whatever) and data (open source, machine readable), as well as enhancing people’s ability to understand data (literacy and beyond), is needed.

What do you think? If I missed something, I’d love to hear about it.

Further reading

GSMA (2014) Latest insights from mFarmer services revealed in new evaluation reports by GSMA

Johnson, C.A., (2007) Social capital and the search for information: Examining the role of social capital in information seeking behavior in Mongolia

Kingiri, A., Nderitu, S. (2014) Assessment of Extension and Advisory Methods and Approaches to Reach Rural Women — Examples from Kenya

Manfre, C., Nordehn, C. (2013) MEAS Case study # 4: Exploring the Promise of Information and Communication Technologies for Women Farmers in Kenya

Mchombu, K (2012) An investigation into the information needs for poverty eradication at Greenwell Matongo in Katutura, Windhoek, in the context of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Pew Research Centre (2015) Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline


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Cover image courtesy of WRI

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