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We live in a world full of data. But what’s the point if none of it joins up?

by Harpinder Collacott | Development Initiatives
Thursday, 8 December 2016 11:08 GMT

A girl carries her baby brother at an evacuation centre for flood victims in San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines, August 14, 2016. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

If we continue to work in silos, we will never unlock the potential of data to drive real change

I was recently sitting in a room with over 100 other people who passionately believe in the importance of data and ­– more specifically – the importance of the open data movement. We were contemplating the big questions – has the opening up of data in the last five years actually led to a change in people’s lives? Is open data the key to achieving the engagement and empowerment of the most vulnerable, the most marginalised and the most excluded in society? And if­ not why are we putting so much time and effort into generating more and more of it?

It is absolutely true that data has immense potential to lead to positive change in people’s lives, whether that’s by improving targeting of health services, identifying risks associated with weather patterns, or understanding barriers to education. However, simply producing more data – open or otherwise – is not enough.

What’s really needed is more useable data.

We live in a world full of data. But what is often lacking is the context that would make it useable. Only when data is compared to other data ­– within or between countries, regions, sectors or over time ­– is that context added. And it is then that people can begin to use data to affect change.   

The problem facing those wanting to make use of the huge array of data that’s becoming available is that this comparability often simply does not exist. Data is being published in different formats, to different standards or on different platforms, with no easy way of linking it up. In many cases the data that is produced is done so in formats that are not machine-readable, let alone interoperable.

The impacts of not being able to compare data are very real. Take the fight against malaria for example; research we’ve carried out as part of our work on Joined-Up Data Standards has shown that it’s not possible to see a full picture of what resources are being spent on fighting the disease. This is because international donors report data to one system and national governments report it to another. The result of this is that it’s not possible to understand how much resource is needed to beat the disease in different contexts, so allocating resources based on evidence becomes impossible. If there was just one system, or the two systems were interoperable, agencies would have the ability to understand current resourcing and likely future needs. This is just one example, but the same logic applies in all spheres and all sectors.

The need for comparison between data is identified in Principle Four of the Open Data Charter, which states:

“We recognize that in order to be most effective and useful, data should be easy to compare within and between sectors, across geographic locations, and over time.

“We recognize that data should be presented in structured and standardized formats to support interoperability, traceability, and effective reuse.”

Data interoperability is key to unlocking the potential of data in achieving social progress for all. Interoperability would mean that the data produced to different standards, or different systems, would become comparable by machine so computers could do the hard work without the need for timely manual human intervention. This will make it a far simpler task for decision-makers to assess needs, evaluate the impact of interventions and drive evidence-based change, whether that’s in policing, health services, social care or international development.

If we know that data interoperability is needed what can we do to actually make it happen?

A lot of the data that is needed to make decisions to drive social progress is produced by various national and international bodies without consideration of how their data needs to sit alongside others’ to build a holistic picture and enable evidenced-based decisions to be made. What is needed is a sea-change in the approach of data standard-setters, producers and users: it’s imperative to move away from producing data in isolation, publishing it in a format that suits just one specific purpose and forgetting the bigger picture. If we continue to work in silos – in individual sectors, in individual countries – we will never unlock the potential of data to drive real change.

Interoperablity is the new frontier for the open data movement. We must break the barriers that prevent data from being joined-up. We must make data interoperable. That is how valuable context can be added to the wealth of data that now exists. Without this context, we’re simply producing numbers and not the vital information that’s needed to deliver social progress for all.

Harpinder Collacott is the Executive Director of Development Initiatives (DI), an independent international development organisation working on the use of data to drive poverty eradication and sustainable development. Harpinder has worked for many years specialising in improving data in development.