We’re emphatic in data for development about increasing visibility through data. So many people are missing from data that it’s almost an automatic response to seek to fill these gaps. But data deficits are a narrow slice of a much larger issue, and data itself is more than just a means of preventing people falling through the cracks. 

Who should decide what we measure?

The push for greater data visibility can be a double-edged sword: Not only are people often harmed by their inclusion in data, but there are many people who dispute the way they are defined and represented in existing data. 

As an Indigenous data advocate and member of the Ktunaxa Nation, Gwen Phillips explained that her community’s power of self-determination directly relates to data. When the Canadian government collects data on the Ktunaxa people, they “report on how sick and ugly and dysfunctional Indigenous people are” instead of on the community’s assets, strengths, and abilities. The Ktunaxa have their own set of metrics to measure community wellbeing that are different from those of mainstream Canadians. 

“As long as others are controlling the agenda, data, and investments, we’re always going to be subject to being beggars in our homeland,” Gwen explained. Having control of defining concepts results in different measures and outcomes. “What you measure is what matters,” Gwen says, “and if it's not what matters, then why measure it?”

In the context of the Data Values Project, defining agency—what it means, who should have it, and how it should be promoted and expanded—has become a key focus within each of the three thematic tracks.

Questioning the good news narrative in data for development

This idea of agency has emerged as fundamental to the Data Values Project in part because it’s largely missing from current development discourse. In the Global North, and predominantly in Europe, the concept of data agency is focused on controlling your personal data and being able to choose when and with whom to share it. 

While important, this concept doesn’t address the idea that shaping whether and how you are counted matters or that being involved in that process can lead to greater equity in society.

In the modern history of counting people, the field of statistics has its origins in the basic functions of the state. Measuring people, land, and possessions became a key source of power for governments, especially for European nations seeking to subjugate and control colonized people from afar. 

These days data for development is entrenched in the good news data narrative. We must know the number and health of people in rural areas in order to deliver life-saving medicine just as we can’t solve hunger without quantifying the causes of food insecurity. In this context, collecting more and better data becomes key to solving the world’s most pressing problems—as it should. But conversations in the Data Values Project have prompted us to expand this narrative.

The pursuit of equity is not just about counting people, making them more visible through data, and listening to diverse perspectives. It’s also about giving people control to define how they are measured and how their data is used.

By acknowledging and overturning the top-down origins of counting people, is it possible to make data a tool of self-determination and a means of restructuring current power imbalances, especially among historically marginalized places and people around the world? 

Looking ahead

There are plenty of models of inclusion that expand people’s agency and create better outcomes. A UK research agency this week released a roadmap for participatory data stewardship that lays out ways for people to gain control over their data, “from being informed about what is happening to data about themselves, through to being empowered to take responsibility for exercising and actively managing decisions about data governance.” The CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance are another example.

Within the Data Values Project, we’re starting to see agency as more than an issue of individual ownership and as a goal of effective data governance that can lead to more equitable outcomes. Instead of answering philosophical questions of what agency looks like in diverse contexts, members of the Data Values Project are struggling with the more difficult task of defining agency, what it means, where it sits, and why it matters—in addition to identifying approaches that foster and expand agency over data. 


  • Jenna Slotin is Senior Director of Policy at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. She’s on Twitter @jslotin. Janet McLaren is Consultant for Data Policy at the Global Partnership and on Twitter @janetlmclaren.