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Engineering a data revolution

Engineering a data revolution

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 - 09:15 to 10:30

Key points

  • There needs to be a joined up effort between supply and demand of data, with particular consideration paid to difficulties faced by national statistics offices already facing budget shortfalls.
  • Rather than a series of numbers that has little meaning to most people, information needs to be relevant, accessible and timely if it is to foster development.
  • Usability of data is the key to the success of the data revolution.
  • The provision of data which leads to accountability is as important to the data revolution as capacity building and the use of new technology.



When one thinks of revolutionaries, statisticians are probably not the first people to spring to mind. Yet this is what they need to become in order to drive the development agenda, participants agreed.

The common criticism of a one-size-fits-all approach to data and strong international targets is that it often conceals as much as it reveals; it is weak on country or regional-level interpretation and fails to capture the true nature of life for many.

However, there is a growing consensus arguing for a change in the way the numbers are collected and presented to help actors in the development world move beyond target-hitting and begin setting clear policy objectives that really benefit people’s lives.

In simple terms, a revolution would consist of: creating better and more relevant data to allow the public to monitor service development and hold leaders to account; creating timely data faster so that it can immediately plug into the real-time debate of development; increasing the statistical capacity of national offices; developing good practices on quality, confidentiality and robustness; and shared standards that provide a strong, reliable and comparable measurement framework.

Chairing the panel, Johannes Jütting, Secretariat Manager of PARIS21, said the post-2015 agenda is an exciting time for the statistical community to transform data collection and statistical presentation by building on past successes and bridging the gaps with innovative ideas. How precisely that revolution is put into practice and what form it takes is what is now up for debate.

Edith Jibunoh, global policy director for campaign and advocacy organisation ONE, described the data revolution as a perfect opportunity to look again at the relevance, accuracy and timeliness of information to support accountability in order for it to mean something to the people on the ground.

‘In the absence of up-to-date, accurate and usable data, then accountability, which really makes the system work, is not going to be fostered and you are not going to get development progress,’ she added.

While the innovative use of technology offers greater accountability – as in the data tracker website, presented by Nick Dyer of the UK Department for International Development, giving public access to aid spending and development data – there is still a major barrier to the provision of data in statistical offices in developing countries. Some offices are still using traditional means of questionnaires and field interviews to collect data, said Shelton Kanyanda, Regional Programme Director at PARIS21 and former chief statistician of the Malawi National Statistical Office. This is delaying real-time availability.  

However offices are facing a double-drain on already challenged resources – budgets from central governments are being cut yet there is an ever-increasing demand, with NGOs submitting multiple requests for more and more data with an insufficiently joined-up approach to what is being asked.

One of the main issues emerging from the floor was the lack of compatibility of data sources that makes practical comparisons of information between individual countries difficult, if not impossible.


‘We need to look at everything, from the production of data at a very local level to the very end of the chain and the use of the data; the global needs and local needs of the data, data storage and data dissemination. All of that is very important.’ Johannes Jütting, Secretariat Manager, PARIS21