As my regular post-2015 update from the invaluable Rachel Quint at the Hewlett foundation reminded me today, there have been (at least) six separate proposals for a global partnership for development data over the last two years. The idea has a lot of fans out there, with supporters ranging from the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia (in the High Level Panel’s report), the chief statisticians of South Africa, India, Canada and Hungary (in the IEAG report), data experts in the World Bank, the UN Secretary General (in his ‘synthesis report’) and academics from institutions including the Centre for Global Development, ODI, SDSN and NYU
And so. Will there actually be a global partnership for development data? I hope so, for two reasons.
Firstly, there are the specific and practical things that a partnership could do.
These are many, but three stand out for me. The first is pretty basic. It was a source of constant frustration, while I was working on the IEAG report, to be hearing about some fantastic and inspirational initiatives to solve problems with data going on in one part of the world, while at the same time, hearing people in a different place lamenting their inability to solve the exact same problem. Something that systematically shared experiences and knowledge between countries and organisations could save time, save money, and perhaps even save lives.
A second big problem at global level is a lack of shared standards. Too much time and money is wasted reverse engineering data created in one system to make it fit another. Too much of the data from one survey can’t be combined with the data from another to add it up into something with more statistical power. Standards and protocols are being invented again and again from scratch, and huge inefficiencies are being created every day.
A third problem is data sharing. Famously, when the Ebola epidemic broke out, valuable time was wasted negotiating how data from mobile phone records could be shared and analysed to help provide the information to track the epidemic. That shouldn’t happen, but it will happen, again and again, unless public-private partnerships are worked out to share data when the next disaster hits, wherever that is.
A global partnership on data could solve real, everyday problems like these. But it would also serve a second purpose. A partnership would create something lasting out of the current excitement around data. The activities and the focus of the partnership would change over time, but just having it would make sure that data has advocates once political attention inevitably moves on to something else.
This is what global institutions do. They all operate in different ways, but the Open Government Partnership is a constant voice arguing for greater openness; GAVI will remind the world why vaccines are important even when minds are focused elsewhere; and the Global Partnership for Education is always there to speak up for the out-of-school. However constituted, a global partnership on data would be a constant voice on the global scene reminding people of the importance of better data, and galvanising resources and action to that end. If you care about better data, that has to be a good thing.
And it’s this long term commitment that will be needed to support the myriad country-level data revolutions that are at the heart of the change that is needed. These won’t happen overnight – someone has to be there for the long haul, to work with the civil society groups campaigning for open data, to link up the national statistical offices in one country who are grappling with the problems that another country solved two years ago, to show how partnerships of all the key actors: government, private sector and civil society can work together to increase both the demand for and the supply of good quality data. There are many great initiatives already underway in this area, not least the Paris21 partnership, but a bigger, more high-level global effort could coordinate and support these efforts by raising political profile, building broader relationships, and generating the kind of momentum that can really deliver results.
In a few years’ time, probably no one will care about the ‘data revolution’. But a global partnership on data could be a lasting legacy of this moment, and can be part of continuous improvements in the data on which we all depend.