Originally posted on the BBC Media Action Insight blog by Sonia Whitehead, Head of Research Programmes, BBC Media Action, on January 19 2017 - 

Head of Research Programmes Sonia Whitehead shares her three top takeaways from the first-ever UN World Data Forum.

This week, 2,000 statisticians, researchers and policymakers from across the world gathered in Cape Town for the first-ever UN World Data Forum. Focused on data’s role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the conference looked at how the sector can better understand the poorest 20% (P20) of the global population. Delegates puzzled over how to better understand and engage these people in order to uphold the commitment to ‘leave no one behind’, which underpins the SDGs.

To do this, the discussions centred on the need for well-communicated, high quality data. The collective view was that – at a minimum – national statistics bureaus should be producing data that breaks down statistics by gender, geography, age and disability. But what more needs to be done to improve our understanding of the P20 to inform policy decisions?

There is an abundance of data being collected today by companies seeking to map consumer preferences. The rise in social media usage is also helping improve our understanding of people, supplementing traditional sources of data. But does this data support development? And how can we improve the communication of data to ensure that everyone engages with and understands it?

Along these themes, there were three points discussed at this conference that gave me particular food for thought.

1) Data guardians are changing

Anne Jellema (World Wide Web Foundation) talked about how new players are collecting and understanding the kind of data that used to be monopolised by the state. National statistics bureaus have traditionally collected data from censuses and held administrative data on healthcare, education and employment – among much else. Governments have long been held accountable for how they use this data.

Technology, however, has shifted this state of affairs. Skype, Google Maps and Uber collect colossal amounts of user data, which doesn’t belong to the public and which their parent companies aren’t as accountable for as governments are.

This growing abundance of data could lead to a situation where data is increasingly in the hands of the few, seeking to utilise it for commercial rather than civic aims. Jellema raised this as a challenge that the data revolution needs to address in order to improve transparency, accountability and the accessibility of data.

Fortunately, we are already seeing how the proliferation of data can also empower citizens. In China, for example, the Bluesky Map App allows users to check the government’s real-time pollution data on factories near them, equipping them with the targeted information they need to push for better environmental practices locally. More than 1,800 factories are said to have taken steps to reduce pollution due to public pressure facilitated by the app, which enables users to tag violations of pollution standards on social media.

2) It's possible to collect data on people’s views – without asking one question

Collecting data on people’s views and perceptions has long been the preserve of researchers posing questions to respondents sampled in a systematic way. But there are now newer, faster ways of understanding views at scale, which don’t require a survey.  

At the time of the Zika outbreak, Facebook and UNICEF teamed up to analyse social media content to inform the development of a digital campaign for Brazilians. Around 100 million people in the country use Facebook and Zika was a popular topic of discussion there. Anonymised Facebook posts were analysed to reveal that 58% of posts on Zika were by men.

Equipped with these insights, UNICEF went on to produce ads featuring a man kissing his daughter born with microcephaly, in a concerted effort to engage men around its Zika campaign. The analysis also showed that people didn’t want to just hear about Zika but also wanted to know find out more about other mosquito-borne diseases.

This example highlights that in an emergency where a high proportion of the population use a particular social media platform, content analysis of posts is a good way of providing audience insights quickly. BBC Media Action also used Facebook to run short online surveys in Nepal to inform post-earthquake broadcasts, but the Zika example shows that data on what people are concerned about can be collected without posing a single question.  

3) People don’t know Global Development 101

Has the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty changed over the last twenty years? Presented with the options of ‘almost doubled’, ‘remained more or less the same’ and ‘almost halved’, only 5% of Americans select the final of the three, which is in fact the correct one.

This pessimism about the true state of global development is not limited to the US; only 14% of South Africans and 23% of Swedes got the right answer. Similar questions were posed to conference delegates by Ola Rosling (Gapminder Foundation). And we were similarly downbeat about how many children are vaccinated against measles and how many years women have spent in the formal education sector. Even a bunch of statisticians fully versed in development didn’t get the answers right.  

Through its Ignorance Project, Gapminder seeks to tackle these and other misconceptions about international development. The project is driven by a concern that the ‘actual facts’ about global progress aren’t getting through the clutter of people’s preconceptions, their tendency to generalise based their own experiences and the (likely outdated) facts they vaguely remembered having learned once in school.

Data clearly needs to be conveyed in a more engaging way so that people around the world can know the facts about topics ranging from global health to migration.

These were just some of my top takeaways; the conference also stressed the importance of breathing life into statistics with a narrative, improving everyone’s data literacy so they can engage with statistics better and giving greater weight to qualitative data about people's perceptions and values. I look forward to the next one in Dubai in two years' time!

Sonia Whitehead is BBC Media Action's Head of Research Programmes, overseeing research across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

 

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