Thursday, 26 June 2014

Going Beyond GDP: Making the leap from measurement to policy

This blog is by Alistair Whitby, Senior Policy Officer at the World Future Council one of the 7 partners of the BRAINPOol project. The post discusses some of the project's recent conclusions on how to broaden the measures of progress in societies. 

Turn on the news on any given day and you would be forgiven for thinking that market growth was the answer to all our problems. At a time of economic fragility it is perhaps unsurprising that the minds of policy makers tend to return frequently to the question of kick-starting growth. But the opposite perspective, that the objectives that have dominated economic policy for the last 40 years – maximising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and market efficiency – are not only inadequate goals for society but might even be part of the problem, is becoming increasingly mainstream.

But how can this emerging realisation that we need broader methods of measuring the progress of our societies start to have an impact in shaping politics and policy? It was to tackle this question that the BRAINPOoL project was set up two and a half years ago and some of its recent conclusions seem to be gaining traction:

People Power

One problem we encountered frequently in the project was the current disconnect between the Beyond GDP movement and the general public. While there is great demand from parts of civil society for positive social and environmental change, people tend not to think in terms of indicators, and thus the measurement debate has so far often been left to experts. This needs to change. If we are going to deal seriously with the issue of ‘what really matters’, we are going to have to make much better efforts at actually asking people what matters to them. Beyond GDP concepts need to be rooted in processes, goals and targets that have legitimacy. Citizens should be involved in selecting political priorities.

The good news is that there are positive signs of change. A diverse array of people from social scientists and citizens groups to NGOs and psychologists are now actively engaged in the alternative indicators debate. Furthermore, whether ‘what matters’ to the public turns out to be job security, health, quality of life, environmental sustainability, social cohesion or overall well-being, all of these things can now be more accurately measured, providing policymakers with robust options for new policy objectives. As noted in the conclusions of last week’s EESC event ‘Let’s Talk Happiness’, these developments mean Beyond GDP can act as an instrument promoting democratic renewal, enabling citizens to make informed, democratic choices with greater proximity to the policy making process.

A New Story of Progress

A key element to winning public support will be communicating a compelling Beyond GDP narrative that provides an alternative story to the current growth-at-all-costs mantra, showing the real differences that the use of alternative indicators will make to policies and outcomes. To be successful indicators must connect with things that have impact on people’s lives (good jobs, equality, security and happiness) highlighting problems and pointing towards solutions. This beyond GDP narrative needs to be able to win votes if it is to become mainstream, and it needs to explain in a consistent way how the world is. Articulating a more holistic vision of progress which strongly resonates with the public should not prove too problematic, however, as the broad themes of this agenda match the public’s preferences to a far greater degree than growth pure and simple. International surveys consistently support this impression.

The advent of big data, wearable devices and mobile technology are converging to allow the creation of new, more timely Beyond GDP indicators that can give us real-time impressions of health, well-being, environmental and social trends, providing a readily available alternative picture to the regular quarterly economic data. Daily air pollution updates are already available in many cities, while apps that track the happiness levels of wearers throughout the day are providing valuable new insights on the foundations of human well-being.

New Ways of Making Policy

All this innovation does pose challenges for policy however. We found a number of barriers to ‘going beyond GDP’ that relate to the particular difficulties for policy-making of adopting a more holistic, multi-dimensional view of progress. Innovation and experimentation will be needed (for example considering combinations of policies that have not been tried before). This shift will require the ability to manage the greater complexities of the world outside of economic statistics, and without falling back on the standard economic thinking and models. This will not be easy, but is both necessary and possible.

One of the exciting aspects of the BRAINPOoL project’s Final Conference was to hear experienced policy makers from France, the UK, Finland and Italy confirm that the adoption of B-GDP indicators can really change the priorities of political action. Imagine what labour market policy could look like if explicitly driven by the aim of maximising well-being: A “living” minimum wage? Flexible or shorter working week? Generous provision of parental leave? The positive benefits for society resulting from a Beyond GDP shift are becoming abundantly clear.

- Alistair Whitby

To read more about the BRAINPOoL project’s results please see or read our short summary of results and recommendations here.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Increasing Youth Involvement in the Data Revolution

There is a lively online discussion happening right now on Wikiprogress aboutMaking data more accessible for society at large”. This blog, by Wikichild Coordinator Melinda Deleuze, will discuss how children and youth could become more involved in the open data world as data users, storytellers and producers. 

A result of an open data society is that data will inevitably become more freely available for young people to download, use, and share. This means that we need to train children and youth to become more data savvy, so they can interpret the increasing amounts of raw data and visualisations. There are already several free courses and tutorials available online about how to analyse data (e.g.;;, which could prove useful for older youth and teachers. There are also online learning tools geared towards a younger audience, such as these data handling games for children as young at 5 years old. Another great initiative mentioned on the online discussion by Big Idea is their Joint Consultation Workshop in Tanzania back in March. The workshop trained young people from Ghana, Nepal and Tanzania to analyse data and present it to a younger audience, which brings me to my next point...

If data is going to be more easily understandable for youth, then it should be other young people telling the stories. The European Youth Press (EYP) has begun training young journalists to use more data in their work. In 2013, EYP launched the “FlagIt!” project which trained 48 young journalists from 4 continents on how to use digital visualisation tools in open source. The project will soon publish an online handbook available to anyone who would like to use these tools. This September, EYP will be hosting a conference for young European journalists (18 to 26 years old) on data-driven journalism, which will also include participation in the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium on media in the era of big data. Finally, EYP provides a free online course “Doing Journalism with Data,” open to anyone with an internet connection. 

Finally, more interactive technology tools should be geared towards youth as data producers, so that their voices can be heard. The Global Partnership on Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda (#GPY2015) is working on an interactive crowdsourcing initiative to identify youth priorities, building on the results of young voters in the MyWorld2015 survey: Education; Employment and Entrepreneurship; Health; Good Governance; Peace and Stability. Citizen Science for Youth’s webinar last October is another example of an initiative aimed at engaging youth in crowdsourcing data. 

Do you know of other initiatives that include child and youth in the data revolution? Feel free to leave a comment in the online discussion!

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Data-Pop Alliance: a global alliance and call for a people-centered Big Data revolution

This May 2014 launch blog by Data-Pop Alliance’s leadership: Emmanuel Letouzé, Claire Melamed, Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Phuong Pham, Emma Samman and Patrick Vinck explains why they started this alliance. This post is part of the Wikiprogress discussion on "Making data more accessible to society at large".
As our lives have become increasingly digital, the amount and variety of data that the world’s population generates every day is growing exponentially, as are our capacities to extract ‘insights’ from them. The potential of ‘Big Data’ for human development and humanitarian action has stirred a great deal of both excitement and skepticism since the concept became mainstream at the dawn of the decade. But simply opposing the ‘promise and perils’ of Big Data is a dead end; recognizing their co-existence a mere starting point.
Looking a generation ahead, observing the persistent prevalence of absolute poverty, the rise of global inequality, and the many walls and ceilings impeding well-being, we wondered: what will it take for Big Data to have by then served the cause of human progress to the best of its ability and ours, as part of the larger “data revolution”? Our answer—our contribution—is the creation of the Data-Pop Alliance.

There is no shortage of valuable publications and conferences, initiatives and working groups, proofs of concepts and lab projects, in the fast expanding universe of ‘Big Data for social good’. But we are frustrated by its high level of institutional fragmentation and corresponding lack of a coherent intellectual direction—especially in relation to the context and concerns of poor developing countries. Individual projects and research do not sufficiently build upon or learn from each other, and movement beyond the project and pilot stage towards the use of Big Data at scale will thus be difficult and probably inefficient. Too many discussions are rooted in ideologies and assumptions rather than in solid empirical findings and a clear theory of social change.

"Big Data must increase and not reduce the power of citizens"

What we saw and see as missing is ‘something’—a player or a group of players—serving as a connecting hub, sounding board, and driving force, with the credibility and agility, the intent and capacity, to promote the kind of ‘Big Data revolution’ we feel is needed. What brought us and our organizations together is the conviction that Big Data must increase and not reduce the power of citizens: that the kinds of low granularity, high frequency, digital personal data (these digital "breadcrumbs") passively emitted by humans ought to be leveraged to impact policies and politics for the benefit of people.  We want to see Big Data amplify the voice and knowledge of the emitters of data, not just improve the insights and means of surveillance of corporations and governments. This will require a better informed, more empowered, global citizenry, and a deeper understanding of the appropriate balance between individual, social, governmental, and commercial interests—with the overarching ethical dimensions and implications.
This is why we created the Data-Pop Alliance: to spur a ‘humanistic’, people-centered, Big Data revolution, cautiously, humbly but resolutely, by providing an enabling environment for learning, information sharing, experimentation, evaluation and capacity building; to catalyze and coordinate developments and innovations in the use of Big Data to help serve the cause of human progress.
Data-Pop Alliance will be a place for the exchange of ideas and information and a broker and implementer of projects.  We believe that structural impact will only come about through a range of connected activities, rather than through a single big initiative or a myriad of disjointed projects. We don’t know yet how Big Data can be best used for human development and social progress. Answers will come from a combination of opportunistic and strategic decisions and actions both on the supply and demand sides of the field. But these should be taken with an eye on the main prize: a future where Big Data improves lives and reduces inequalities, rather than one characterized by a new and widening digital divide.
It is only by linking and leveraging skills, perspectives, and resources in an inter-disciplinary, systematic, and collegial manner that we will collectively be able to make the most of the tremendous potential offered by Big Data to create more agile and more accountable sociopolitical ecosystems, while avoiding its main traps and pitfalls. In this, we are fortunate enough to be joined by an incredible number of institutional and individual partners in a wide range of fields and sectors, from computer science to humanitarian assistance, official statistics to statistical machine-learning, working in small non-governmental organizations and large international institutions, official bodies and academic establishments.
Of course, differences of views are and will be represented in Data-Pop Alliance—along, and at times at odds with, ‘expected’ political lines and economic interests. An obviously contentious question is: in a post-Snowden era, how much, how, by and for whom, when and for what purpose, should cell-phone data be collected, shared and analyzed? Addressing that question—and many others—won’t be easy. But our conviction, based on the lessons of past revolutions and our own experiences, is that the confrontation of competing perspectives coupled with the constant recall of our common objectives is the best and indeed only way to create constructive change.
And so this ‘launch blog post’ is also a call to action and connection to everyone willing to contribute to our mission statement: promoting a people-centered Big Data revolution for development and social progress.
Find out more about the Wikiprogress discussion on:

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Democratising data: the need to make statistics more accessible to everyone

The world of statistics is changing: traditionally the domain of experts alone, new technologies and methods of communication have the potential to open up a range of different data to new audiences, and to make statistics more accessible to everyone. From 11-24 June, Wikiprogress is hosting an online discussion on the role of open data, communication and technology in making data more accessible for society at large. This blog, by Kate Scrivens, Wikiprogress Project Manager, sets out some of the key issues for the discussion.

Data of the people, by the people and for the people

For centuries, the primary purpose of government data, from the Domesday Book to the present day, has been to inform decision-making at the very highest levels. However, the last decade or so has seen an increasing movement towards ‘democratising data’, and making statistics available that are more relevant to a broader public. The shift towards a ‘beyond GDP’ mind-set, focusing on developing better and broader measures of people’s well-being, is an essential step in developing statistics that are more relevant to people’s lives. But democratising data is also about ensuring that relevant statistics are more easily accessible to a wider public.

Thanks to the internet and other innovative technologies, people can engage with data in an increasing number of ways: not only as consumers of new types of information, but also as interpreters, communicators and even producers of data.

People as data interpreters: the power of Open Data

Open data are data that people are ‘free to use, re-use and redistribute — without any legal, technological or social restriction’, according to the Open Knowledge Foundation.  By opening up previously restricted data – from government and other sources – for universal use, citizens have the chance to be much more directly involved in decision-making, and to be better informed about issues that affect their own well-being. For example, people looking to move to a new town, can compare data on air quality, schools, hospitals, or other factors that matter most to them in order to select the best place to live. They can also use the same data to shine a spotlight on areas where improvement is needed, thereby strengthening the accountability of government and other institutions.

Opening up access to data can be empowering, but not everyone has the necessary skills or patience to make the most of raw data. Open Data has the biggest impact when they are made available in an easily accessible format by people acting as ‘data interpreters’, with the necessary analytical and technical skills to re-use the data in innovative, new ways, such as creating mobile apps and other technologies. For example,, showcases a large selection of apps created using European public data, from an app to monitor carbon monoxide emissions across Europe, to one helping road users identify traffic accident hotspots. For the power of Open Data to be evenly shared across society, however, capacity-building is crucial. Organisations such as the School of Data, exist for exactly this purpose: to provide engaged citizens with the skills they need to make the most of data. For many, this kind of power shift is the true meaning of the “data revolution” (read more here and here).

People as data communicators: visualisation and storytelling

Creating mobile apps is just one way of re-using data. An equally powerful way of making statistics more accessible to a broader audience is through the use of storytelling to convey the underlying meaning of the data. This can be done by the data producers themselves (such as government or statistical agencies) or by intermediaries such as data journalists, civil society organisations or anyone with an interest in finding the best way to communicate the key messages of datasets. Stories can be told in the traditional way, through narrative text, or they can be conveyed in a more visual manner - through infographics and charts that organise the data in such a way that the meaning is immediately apparent. Data visualisations can be incredibly beautiful, but their importance goes beyond aesthetics: they provide a unique means of highlighting new patterns in statistics and looking at the world in a different way. Visualisations can be static, or they can be interactive and dynamic, such as the animated trends from, which visualise the evolution in development indicators such as child mortality and HIV prevalence to gain new insight.
Telling a story around statistics, either through words or visualisations, is not without its pitfalls and data communicators need to be responsible storytellers, not misrepresenting the data to meet their own needs.  Data visualisation as a mass communication tool is a relatively new discipline and a better understanding of best practice and good examples would be a helpful resource for data communicators.

People as data producers: crowdsourcing statistics through digital technology

Finally, digital technologies mean that members of the public can have greater access to statistics by participating themselves as data producers. The prevalence of accessible yet sophisticated mapping technology through mobile platforms provides a means to crowdsource data from members of the public. While this is a new area, there are a number of examples of crowdsourced data related to progress and well-being statistics such as Mappiness - an app to monitor levels of subjective well-being in the UK, Open Elm Map – which uses community-generated data to track Dutch Elm Disease, Harrassmap – which uses crowdsourced data to highlight sexual harassment hotspots in Egypt, and the Ushadi platform, which was originally used to track political violence in Kenya and which now encompasses a number of open-source platforms. Crowdsourced data is perhaps the ultimate in democratising data: empowering people to be producers as well as consumers of data.

Best practices and good examples

It is clear that making data more accessible to society at large covers a broad range of issues. Technological advances provide a huge potential for democratising data, but many of these areas are new or evolving quickly. There is a need to identify best practices and good examples in the areas of Open Data, visualisation, and crowdsourcing technologies in order to provide guidance to those interested in making data more accessible.

This online discussion is an opportunity for the Wikiprogress community to hear from individuals and organisations with experience in these areas. In particular we’d like answers to the following questions:

  • What role can Open Data play to increase citizen’s engagement with well-being and progress statistics?
  • How can data visualisation and storytelling be used to increase our understanding of data? What are the best examples of data visualisation?
  • What are the best examples of crowd-sourced data related to well-being and progress?

We look forward to hearing from you in the discussion!

What’s missing from the data revolution? People.

Written by Neva Frecheville, Co-chair, Beyond 2015, Lead Analyst Post-MDGs, CAFOD. This post is in the lead up to the Wikiprogress discussion on "Making data more accessible to society at large".

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 participatory research in 29 countries, people living in poverty articulated their aspirations as freedom from discrimination and oppression, the ability to participate in the decision 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 of policies 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.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Talking ’bout a (data) revolution? Then let’s make it truly revolutionary

Written by Ben Taylor, Open Development Consultant with Twaweza, working on citizens’ agency and open government in East Africa. He blogs at and tweets as @mtega. This post is written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the views of Twaweza. This post is in the lead up to the Wikiprogress discussion on "Making data more accessible to society at large".

“We call for a data revolution,” said the report of the high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, “with a new international initiative to improve the quality of statistics and information available to citizens. We should actively take advantage of new technology, crowd sourcing, and improved connectivity to empower people with information on the progress towards the targets.”
As someone who works in the field of data and development, I find this idea exciting – but have a couple of problems with how it is being interpreted.
First, a revolution, by definition, should represent a radical shift in power, but amid the competing views on what the revolution should look like, this point is in danger of being forgotten.
Statisticians, data scientists and development policy wonks alike have jumped on the idea of a data revolution with delight. Stats boffins see it as an opportunity to get the funding needed to make sure national statistics offices can do their jobs properly. Policy wonks see it as a chance to get more reliable data with which to compare progress in Malawi and Malaysia, say. And the tech and data gurus are looking for recognition for a wider range of data sources, beyond household surveys.
But, in my view, all these envisioned benefits are about giving powerful people in Washington, London and Geneva (etc.) increased access to more and better data on development progress.
This was what I heard at a meeting I attended at the end of January, on data and accountability for the post-2015 development framework. I found it to be disappointingly unambitious.
Don’t get me wrong, more and better data, better monitoring of global commitments and better-informed policy debates are all valid goals. But can’t we be more radical, more ambitious, more revolutionary?
Look again at the first sentence of this post – the clue is in the final word. Let’s improve the quality and availability of data to citizens. It’s about changing the relationship between governments and their citizens (or rather between citizens and their governments). That has the potential to be far more transformative, even emancipatory.
The real potential of the data revolution idea comes when it’s combined with another interesting proposal in the same report:
“Responsive and legitimate institutions should encourage the rule of law, property rights, freedom of speech and the media, open political choice, access to justice, and accountable government and public institutions. We need a transparency revolution, so citizens can see exactly where and how taxes, aid and revenues from extractive industries are spent. These are ends as well as means.”
Did you spot that word again: revolution? Blend these two revolutions together – data and transparency – with a generous dash of political freedoms, and we’re really starting to get somewhere.
It’s when data goes beyond reporting on poor people’s lives and starts to provide those people with the data and information to shape change for themselves that it starts to get interesting. And that means something quite different to the way the ‘data revolution’ was being discussed in New York.
There’s another mistake we could easily make, particularly those of us who see the data revolution as an opportunity to put citizens in the driving seat: the potential of data to empower citizens is clear, but we need to be realistic about how this can be achieved. Publish-and-they-will-come is not enough. We need to be much better at using data, at making it useful and interesting to citizens.
This means starting with understanding who those people are and what their interests are. It means asking who they currently turn to for information and for support when trying to get things done. It means asking whether data (in its modern sense) is really the tool you need – or if radio, noticeboards or community organising might be more appropriate. If data are involved, it means presenting it in ways that are meaningful and interesting. That means disaggregation to a very local level – not national or even district level, but the level of the individual school or village – and comparisons and narratives that bring the data to life. And it means thinking seriously about how you expect data to deliver change.
‘Infomediaries’ have a key role to play: acting as a bridge between data and people, and not only finding stories from screens full of numbers but being able to tell those stories in ways that engage and inspire citizens to act. And in many cases, citizens may turn to those same ‘infomediaries’ to support them – to amplify their voices, to play the games that deliver change in practice. I’m talking most obviously about the media, but also about local politicians, communities and religious leaders.
I realise I am asking for both ambition and realism. But that’s not necessarily a contradiction. If we can be revolutionary in our aims and practical in how we achieve them, then we will have a data revolution worthy of the name.
Ben Taylor

This blog first appeared on, here

To find out more about the Wikiprogress discussion on "Making data more accessible to society at large: the role open data, communication and technology".