What’s missing from the data revolution? People.

Posted by & filed under Accountability, Citizenship, Governance, Participation, Post-2015.

Neva Frecheville

I find the post-2015 data debate both fascinating and disappointing, failing as it does in one key area.

It’s ignoring power.

The UN High Level Panel report on the post-2015 development agenda confirmed that the data revolution is high on the political agenda by including it as one of their five transformational shifts.  Since then, the conversation has snowballed, with some heavy weights adding their support.

But I’d argue that at present, the data revolution is too technocratic to change the world. While they’re right that the lack of adequate data is a serious obstacle to good evidence based policy (and practice), the right statistics alone will not change the world.  Without looking at the power dynamics behind this ‘revolution’, very little is transformational.  Serious questions need to be asked about whose data is captured, by whom, and who has the ability to access, define and interpret it.  Whereas the wider open data debate has cottoned on to the importance of citizen empowerment and participation and frames the debate as participation, accountability and transparency, it’s too little referenced in the post-2015 arena.

Who are the people who are meant to benefit the most from the post-2015 development agenda? We all have a responsibility to ensure that those most disenfranchised from decision-making are at the centre of the post-2015 debate.  This means those living in the greatest poverty and experiencing the greatest exclusion – especially if we want to achieve the other rallying cry to ‘leave no one behind.’

One of the biggest criticisms of the MDGs is that they were created in the dark corridors and behind the closed doors of global politics at the end of the millennium. Ostensibly, the world is different now – the global conversation, outreach that has seen 1.3 million people share their priorities, and negotiations broadcast online are testament to an increasingly connected world . But this is a conversation that has to include those at the margins in a way that understands the unequal labyrinths of power in which they operate.

Unless we have a better understanding of the data revolution in the context of power dynamics it will not succeed in delivering real, positive change on the ground. During Participate’s participatory research in 29 countries, people living in poverty articulated their aspirations as freedom from discrimination and oppression, the ability to participate in the decisions which affect their lives, social inclusion and a sense of hope. In a world of rising inequalities, people describe poverty and marginalisation as the denial of the rights that confer equality and dignity. But tick box exercises, or even formal legislative recognition of those rights, do not automatically translate into concrete outcomes. For the poorest, the reality experienced through the behaviour of government officials and institutional representatives is one of discrimination and intolerance.

The testimony of one participant from Chennai in India bears witness to the lack of ownership that marginalised people experience when articulating their reality: “Our rights of privacy, freedom are not respected… In fact, the society knows that we are not heard. Often the view is that what we say should not be taken at face value… Even our truths get interrogated.” Without ensuring that people have control of what data is collected, how it is represented and used, and the decisions it is used to inform, this dynamic is not going to change.

So what are the solutions? Participate findings have shown that a participatory approach to governance, that engages with local knowledge, strengthens people’s voices, and enables people to have influence and hold decision-makers to account, has the potential to be transformational. But the meaningful participation of people living in poverty in the creation, implementation, monitoring and evaluation won’t take place if the data which determines policies and priorities is extracted and does nothing to strengthen their hand.

The data revolution must be built from the bottom up, linking local to global. This means investment in community organisation and capacity development, and enabling spaces for the collective action of marginalised communities to emerge. This means empowering citizens – especially the poorest and most marginalised – to participate in the data revolution by developing the skills and capacity of people living in poverty to define the rights that matter most to them, capture and make use of this data, be included in creating, monitoring and implementing policies, and hold institutions to account based on this data.


This article first appeared in the Post2015.org blog. Neva Frecheville is Co-Chair of Beyond 2015 and Lead Analyst Post-MDGs, CAFOD.

2 Responses to “What’s missing from the data revolution? People.”

  1. Graham Long

    For what it’s worth, this is 100% right. I think there’s a real worry that because the ‘data revolution’ is relatively non-political, and at the same time nods in the direction of transparency and open government, it becomes an easy governance ‘win’ at the expense of more important and challenging goals and targets. Of course the availability of data represents one aspect of transparency, and enables one form of accountability, but both of these notions contain much more that data doesn’t touch. I think more work could be done to track these relationships more closely.

    Maybe it’s worth stressing, to support what you say at the end, that participation, inclusion etc. are important, but they rely for their importance on what people are to be participating in. After all, those 1.3m voters on MyWorld have participated in some sort of sense, but without control of the question they were asked or how their data has been used and interpreted, or of their place in the larger process. The aim should be the widest, most thoroughgoing inclusion in a participatory process which possesses power over the agenda – and power, at that, which is public and guaranteed by right.

    • Neva

      Thanks Graham, although I don’t want us to disappear down a black hole of us just agreeing with each other, I think you’re right. That’s why I say unless we look at the power dynamics of this process, post-2015 is going to be meaningless and citizens and civil society will only be invited into ‘safe’ spaces where they don’t have that much opportunity to instigate real change. It’s one of the reasons I value participatory approaches so much – they enable people to identify what the issues that they want to talk about and change are, rather than having to tick boxes created by experts and institutions that can be misguided about what inventions, changes and solutions really work. But we’ve quite some way to go before powerful actors are willing to listen and concede some of that power – unless their hand is forced.


Leave a Reply