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The ‘data revolution’: of the people, for the people?

Subjected to scrutiny, the data ‘revolution’ has always seemed more like savvy branding than an accurate description of any actual phenomenon. As one commentator has wryly observed, “the data revolution may be the first revolution in history not to feature any people”. Nevertheless, since being heralded in the report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, the idea of the data ‘revolution’ has been taken up with great enthusiasm. Recently, it was further enshrined and elucidated in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution, ‘A World That Counts’.


If the ‘data revolution’ is to bring real social transformation
it must be empowering and accessible to all
CESR engaged with the IEAG’s report because we know that data -and the processes of collecting and using it - can have a wide range of human rights impacts; and that high-quality data can illuminate human rights problems (not least socio-economic inequalities) and help to identify potential policy solutions. Our interest as human rights advocates is that this so-called ‘revolution’ lives up to its name in terms of being empowering, bottom-up and accessible rather than yet another top-down technocratic development exercise – no matter how many colorful infographics and interactive crowd-sourced maps are produced.  Although data may seem by its very nature to be inhuman, in fact development data should be deeply human and humanizing. Not only does it provide and aggregate information about people, it should also be used for and by people to help them shift power imbalances, claim their rights and procure the services to which they are entitled to realize those rights.

Our experience of human rights monitoring has underlined the difficulties in assessing progress or backsliding in human rights enjoyment without the right kinds of data and information being collected and made available. This is a pressing challenge across many different contexts. In our work on tax and human rights for example, we share the frustration of many economists and tax justice campaigners at the dearth of accurate information on illicit financial flows, tax evasion, beneficial ownership and corporate tax incentives. We know that economic inequality is growing worldwide, but in fact the scale of this inequality is still underestimated, because much of the wealth of the top 1% is hidden. Similarly, although it is easy to observe that gender inequality is rife, we still lack good data illuminating how resources are shared within households, or how a nation’s tax burden is shared between women and men. Meanwhile, millions of people worldwide are absent from official records and from official accounts of progress (because they are marginalized or hard to reach), and are therefore denied their rights. This might not only lead us to underestimate these inequalities and their root causes, but also blind us to some potentially important policy solutions.

More positively, we felt it was important to share insights derived from our work on monitoring public policies from a rights perspective (for example in Guatemala).  Despite the challenges outlined above, in recent years CESR and other human rights advocates have developed creative methods for using available socio-economic data and applying it to human rights questions, while experiences of human rights monitoring show that it is possible to analyze progress in many areas of development traditionally thought of as unquantifiable, such as accountable governance.  

Despite the woefully inadequate time window for civil society consultation on the IEAG’s report, the exercise did demonstrate the importance of seeking this feedback, as the final report was a significant improvement on the draft. In particular, the final report addressed some of the concerns CESR and others expressed by exhibiting a greater sensitivity to and more nuanced understanding of human rights.  It acknowledges that “human rights cut across many issues relevant to the data revolution”. This was in contrast to the draft, which had a narrow vision of the relationship between rights and the data revolution in which the latter could negatively threaten the former - understood mostly as privacy rights. It also states that any institutions, mechanisms or partnerships set up to mobilize or regulate the data revolution must respect, protect and fulfill human rights.  In addition, the authors introduced the importance of supporting and investing in civil society’s ability to collect, use and analyze data; the need to prioritize gathering data on especially vulnerable and marginalized populations and on various grounds of discrimination and inequality; and the need for national statistical offices to be more transparent and establish more links with the public.

The report still has considerable weaknesses (see here for one analysis). From our perspective, the most pressing of these is the report’s complacent assumption that data will improve accountability (“data are… the raw material for accountability”), without exploring the necessary stepping stones. How will ordinary citizens use this data to seek progress, justice and redress? For example, accessible accountability mechanisms will need to be in place, and these mechanisms - such as courts and human rights bodies - need capacity-building to be able to use and analyze data more effectively. In addition, more robust language overall on government transparency – the State’s duty to actively provide all relevant information to its people, including on budgets, financial and tax policies – would have been welcome. Right to information laws don’t even get a mention.

The experience of the MDGs has taught us that what can be measured and quantified gets more political attention - and more funding.  High-quality accessible data – combined with important shifts in how we collect and use it - could certainly play a role in improving human rights enjoyment, empowerment and accountability. For instance, a meaningful commitment in the post-2015 sustainable development goals to tackle inequalities and leave no one behind, combined with data systems that can really pinpoint who is being excluded, and the extent and nature of their deprivation, could be a major step towards tackling these unacceptable disparities within and between countries . However, transformative change is still ultimately a question of political will and power. We must not be seduced by the idea that data is a quick fix to solve global poverty and inequality. This misconception may partly explain the enthusiasm for the ‘data revolution’ in policy and development circles – it gives us the false comfort that perhaps it is all about stats and numbers after all, rather than messy politics and real human beings in all their complexity. Data does not equal empowerment, and it does not inevitably result in accountability, as the report seems to suggest. No amount of data is going to overcome the thorny and very contextual development challenges we face, and it can certainly never be a substitute for really engaging with communities and ensuring they have the means to challenge development injustices.

Posted by Kate Donald on November 24th, 2014