Digitalisation for Development #1 The Potential of Data
Digitalisation is happening everywhere around us. Along with it comes the unprecedented growth of data, offering tremendous potential to create social impact. Many questions, however, remain on how to make best use of data to improve our development programmes. Where does the Dutch development sector currently stand on unlocking the full potential of data for development? And what still needs to be done?
Interview with Jeroen van der Sommen (co-founder, Akvo)
Author: Aimee Breuls
Data can improve the lives of many people worldwide in numerous ways. For starters, I am very grateful that I no longer need to read a paper map in order to get to someplace new – as my sense of direction is the world’s absolute worst. With data collected from GPS technology, we are now able to receive real-time travel instructions in many places on the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic also serves as a good example of the opportunities that data holds. Many countries started monitoring the spread of the virus, helping them to control the disease and understand the effect of various measures.
Data can also be of great value for development. In the ‘Data for Better Lives’ report, the World Bank even states that the new uses of data lead to innovations that could prove to be one of the most life-changing events of this era for everyone. In this first blog of a series of two, I will talk to Jeroen van der Sommen, co-founder and former director of Akvo, about the value of data for development and the steps that need to be taken in order to realise its full potential.
Data is the engine of development. – Jeroen van der Sommen
Data for development
In order to boost the impact of development programmes, the not-for-profit organisation Akvo offers data services and tech solutions to development organisations and governments. Their work is more relevant than ever, as more and more people start to recognize the importance of data-driven development. The Digital Agenda of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published in 2019, called out for more use of data and digital technology for development. Whereas this has been a good resolution, there is still a lack of knowledge on how to put the ideas of this report into practice.
According to Jeroen, a highly fragmented process is taking place in which development organisations are collecting their data primary to measure impact and provide donors with results. Organisations hardly use data to run better programmes. What happens when organisations start to let data drive decision-making? Not only does this create new opportunities; data-driven decision making also leads to increased efficiency and powerful advocacy.
Value of data
To illustrate, let’s take a project of Akvo from five years ago in Nigeria. They systematically mapped all water points in the country by using smartphones to collect data. This not only revealed areas with limited water access but also, through the use of algorithms, pointed out water pumps that were most prone to failure in the near future. As a result, the efficiency of the development programme increased. Consequently, the construction of water pumps could be planned more adequality. These data-based insights empowered voices needed to advocate for governmental investments for water pumps.
Other great examples are the winning innovations of the Partos Collaborative Innovation Awards 2021. GNP+ used an app to gather data on people living with HIV to inform advocacy and decision-making. CNV Internationaal used data collected through digital surveys to ensure textile workers in Cambodia earn the money they deserve. You can learn more about these inspiring initiatives in the Podcast Series. So, when working with data in the right way, the opportunities are big. But, as Jeroen states, we need to deal with data in a fundamentally different way within development cooperation in order to make a real change.
Development organisations go into the field, collect data, use them once and then throw it away. This has to change. – Jeroen van der Sommen
Then what needs to change? For starters, Jeroen argues that it’s important to work on the negligent behaviour that prevails within the development sector towards the collection, use, and sharing of data. More rule than the exception, organisations throw away their data when development programmes come to an end. Many development organisations do not invest in the safe storage of their data. This leads to a huge waste of potentially relevant knowledge which can tell us more about what works and what does not within our programmes.
At the same time, there are many organisations that want to make use of the potential of data but do not want to make the necessary investments. This results in the use of free tools that run counter to development goals. Therefore, it is essential that organisations start to pool their resources. By doing so, they can collectively invest in tools, storage capacities, and exchanging data.
Data exchange platforms
But where to start? Several initiatives have emerged that started to work on creating a collective pool to invest in the use of data for development. By working together to integrate the collection, analysis, and storage of data into their programming, more successful outcomes are created in which data is optimally used.
An example of such an innovation is the establishment of data exchange platforms, like the Mali Data Exchange (Mali-DEX) initiated by Akvo. Working with local start-ups and youth, these platforms help development organisations to collect data in the field. They also can help in finding relevant existing data as data is often available but unlocated. Additionally, the platforms are a place where you can safely hand in your data, making it accessible for others to re-use. Repeatedly reusing data is important when we want to realise data’s full value.
We within the development sector have the task to give communities ownership on their own data. – Jeroen van der Sommen
Not only organisations benefit from working with data platforms, but so do communities. It enables communities to make better plans for their future based on reliable data. The platforms also create employment opportunities. As data awareness is often low within communities and within governments, a data exchange platform can improve data literacy by investing in data skills.
Another urgent problem that data exchange platforms can help to address is something that Jeroen calls ‘data colonialisation.’ At the moment, big IT companies from the U.S. and China are rapidly collecting data in Africa on different segments, such as agriculture and retail. All this data is flowing to huge businesses such as Facebook and Amazon with only one goal: increasing the profits of a small group of shareholders. As those IT companies do not focus on increasing the incomes of the communities from whom the data is collected, these businesses can jeopardize development goals.
Although the data is from those you collect it from, big IT companies do not adhere to the data ownership of communities. This is exactly why initiatives such as the data exchange platforms are so important as they take into account data ownership. They can also serve as focal points in which the different interests around data can be brought together. It’s therefore up to all development organisations and governments to ensure that communities are given ownership of the data that is being derived from them.
As the Dutch development sector is currently not unlocking the full potential of data for development, what still needs to be done? As Jeroen states, doing nothing is not an option. The question is whether the development sector, including donors, are able to make a shift. Instead of working together, development organisations are competing with one another. This fragmentation and short-sightedness are the biggest problems we are facing within the development sector, and it crystallizes in great detail around data and digitalisation. If we keep on working on our own instead of making a collective stand, we will be heading in the wrong direction.
Collaboration is crucial. If everyone acts on their own, nothing will change. – Jeroen van der Sommen
It’s now up to development organisations to start realising data’s full value by working on their data use and focusing on collaborations e.g., by joining initiatives such as the data exchange platforms. This leaves an important role for Partos to support Dutch development organisations in this shift towards data-driven development. To offer a platform where organisations can come together to learn about data, exchange learnings and experiences, and foster collaboration, the Partos Innovation Hub launched the Digital Lab.
On the 10th of February 2022, Partos and Digital Power organise an Introduction to Data session to kick-off the Data Awareness Series. Aiming to help development professionals to integrate a data point of view into their day-to-day work, joining this session is a good way to start realising the full potential of data within your organisation.
Data is becoming an integral part of the lives of many people around the globe. Hence, it’s about time the development sector starts integrating data into its organisations, programmes, and innovations. For those that don’t know where to begin, there are many places to go for support. The Partos Digital Lab offers a space where individuals and organisations who want to make this change can come together to learn and innovate, and organisations like Akvo offer help to those who want to use data to achieve better outcomes.
However, digitalisation covers a great deal more than just the use of data. As it is affecting our organisations, partnerships, and programmes, we also need to make a change within our organisations to become digital-ready. But how do we make this digital transformation? And what can digital innovations offer us? In my next blog, I will talk to Jacqueline Lampe, director of RNW Media, about making this transformation and realising the full potential of digital technologies. Stay tuned!
Written by Aimee Breuls
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