“Data is a new discipline, and I think we’ve taken a far too narrow view of it so far.” That’s the starting point for Dr. Danil Mikhailov, Executive Director of data.org, an ambitious collaborative platform that works with social-impact organizations from all over the world to use data to improve people’s lives and foster social good.
“The social impact space is falling behind in its ability to use data science,” Mikhailov warns. He’s made it his mission to help the sector catch up, by building connections and growing organizational capacity, especially the ability for organizations to work effectively with the rich datasets that they haven’t yet figured out how to leverage.
Mikhailov unpacked his perspective in a wide-ranging conversation with Arturo Franco, Senior Vice President, Thought Leadership, at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The two sat down together at the 2022 Reach Symposium, held in April by the Reach Alliance, an emerging global leadership and research network examining how critical development interventions serve the world’s hardest-to-reach populations, based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
Franco recognized that “the many great advances in data science and machine learning over the last decades, stemming mostly from universities and the private sector, have not made their way into the hands of those working at the front lines of social progress.”
While organizations may have access to amazing data, they often lack the leadership, tools, and talent to use it for decision-making. That’s one of three big constraints to scaling data for global social change that Mikhailov observes. Another is poor data availability, with information often fragmented and trapped in silos. The third constraint he sees is trust.
“In some cases, we’re way behind track on meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. We need some sort of accelerant in the system, and data technology can be that, but only if done right, and if done in a trusted way.”
The crux of the issue is this: initiatives that collect data from local communities without community consultation simply don’t work. People need to have a say in the information that’s collected about them — not only as a matter of basic rights, but also because they usually have the best sense of what information matters most in local contexts.
This was an important insight that emerged in a Reach Alliance study of the successful transformation of Tanzania’s medical supply system. The extension of the supply system to every corner of the country balanced a commitment to standardization with local adaptations — based especially on local data, about everything from drug consumption patterns in village health centers to the impact of seasonal weather conditions on rural supply routes. Similar insights on the need to adapt data collection and analysis to local contexts arose again in a Reach study of cash transfer programs for hard-to-reach populations in Ethiopia, Brazil, Jordan and Palestine.
The way in which local data is collected and handled is central to the work of Dr. Claire Melamed, Chief Executive Officer at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. The data ecosystem is fragmented, with different actors and sectors working in isolation – a network is therefore needed to bring the data for development community together. The Global Partnership is a 650-organization strong network, working across 35 countries, to bring people together around the problem of how to use data to serve humanity. Melamed’s organization, launched in 2015, is building a global movement that works on influencing public policy and getting data to where it is needed most, with the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals as their primary target.
“We have to always think about doing data with people, and not doing data to people,” Melamed emphasized on a discussion on how to responsibly use data to achieve the SDGs at the 2022 Reach Symposium.
For her, using data to improve people’s lives means starting from principles of agency and accountability. “Too often we’ve seen that people are represented in data in ways that reflect what people in power think are worth recording,” says Melamed. Key to restoring agency is data sovereignty, recognizing people’s ownership over the data collected about them.
Then the people who control, produce, and use that data must be held accountable. For Melamed this goes far beyond data privacy. It means broadly enlarging the accountability of decision-makers at all levels, from the local to the national, in the same way that we would expect of any other sector.
The stakes couldn’t be higher — data is at the center of our drive to achieve a better and more sustainable future, so we have to get it right. “It’s data that really underpins so much of what we’re trying to do,” Melamed reminds us.
“It’s the data that tells us what the problems are, that helps us to analyze where there are inequalities, vulnerabilities, and crises that we need to address. It’s data that can help to point the direction to give that picture of progress and show us where we want to be.”
To learn more about the 2022 Reach Symposium and to watch the full recordings of Dr. Mikhailov, Arturo Franco, and Dr. Melamed sessions, visit: https://reachalliance.org/2022-symposium/