In under two weeks’ time, 350 people from around the world will be gathering in Bristol, UK for the Data For Development Festival. This is the first time the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data has tried to get all its partners together in one place, and we’re overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and the willingness of so many to pitch in with their time, their money, and their good ideas to make the event a success. We can’t wait to see you all.

Is meeting IRL necessary?

When we first announced the festival, some people asked: why hold an event? Why put in the huge amounts of work required for just a few days of activity? And why ask everyone to spend their time and money flying around the world, when we could just have another conference call?

The first answer is that creating connections is at the heart of what the Global Partnership does. The results from our first Partners Survey – which will be released in full at the festival – show how much people value the networking element of our role, and in many cases that’s why they joined in the first place. We’ve invested heavily in the Global Partnership website this year, to make virtual connections easier, but there’s no substitute for face-to-face. So every two years, we have undertaken to provide just that – a physical place where our partners can meet each other. We know you want that, and we are delighted to offer it. Face-to-face communication is still a critical part of building the community, the trust, and the relationships that are the key to achieving better data, better decisions, and better lives.

How frank, productive, and forward-looking are your conference calls?

A second reason to bring everyone together is to get the best out of one other as we exchange ideas and explore common challenges. As we get on our regular conference calls and focus on delivering the things we have committed to right now, we are, rightly, focused on the present and not the future. But in this field, the future is always approaching us at warp speed and we need to create the time and space to think about it. Not just as an interesting academic exercise, but to ensure that the decisions we make today are robust in the face of the likely developments of tomorrow. 

So the festival is our chance to challenge each other on some of the big questions in the field. Does privacy override all other concerns? Should all software be open source? Have open data portals really delivered and how can they be improved? Decisions about these things are being made now – either deliberately or by the choices that we are making without even realizing it. The festival is the chance to bring these things out into the light, in an atmosphere of trust and collaboration towards common goals. As we start to work them out, we can make sure we are, by the actions we take every day, building the data ecosystem we want for the long term. 

Is your cubicle inspiring light bulb moments?

A third reason is practical. People can huddle together in a corner and have the crucial 20 minute conversation that moves a project forward more than six months of frustrating conference calls ever could. People can learn from each other in the many training sessions and demonstrations that will be going on throughout. People can share experiences and in doing so improve both the impact they have and the way they have it. There is so much expertise, and there are so many good ideas and practical projects going on in our network. The festival is the chance to share them, improve them, and put them to work for the SDGs.

These are the reasons we meet, and these are the things we want from the festival: new connections and new ideas that will lead to impact tomorrow, and new practical commitments for driving projects forward to achieve impact today.   

Partnership is demanding. It requires effort and commitment from all sides, and this has been no less true of the partnership that has delivered this festival. More than 60 of our partners have been involved in different ways – organising sessions, fielding speakers, preparing to demonstrate their projects, and helping with resources. We are hugely grateful to all of them, and to the many hundreds who will be coming to participate. It is sure to be stimulating, exciting, and it will be fun – there’s an SDG game! And a VR Playspace, live drawing, a data dive, and more!

But we expect a lot of you, in the form of involvement during the event, and, most importantly, in the form of actions afterwards. We have already received a lot in the form of the intense collaboration that has led to more than 40 partner-led sessions. This partnership is a place for organisations that want to change how things are done and accelerate progress, and that means concrete planning that leads to concrete outcomes. For me, the real test will come in March 2019, when I look back and see how many conversations, ideas, and collaborations discussed during the festival have turned into actions to improve people’s lives. The clock starts ticking on March 21, 2018, and I look forward to all of you being there at the starting line. 

Photo by Kris Krüg.