Authors: Kavita Abraham Dowsing and Sonia Whitehead, October 10 2016 - Ahead of the launch of BBC Media Action’s data portal in October, Kavita Abraham-Dowsing and Sonia Whitehead explain why we need more data about the views, aspirations and challenges of ordinary people in the developing world.

What’s the biggest concern of a mother of four living in rural Bangladesh? What does a young man looking for work in Freetown most want for his future? What are their opinions on issues like the environment and their government? Who do they trust?

It’s often known what governments are worried about, but it’s a lot more difficult to find out about the lives of ordinary people in the developing world. This is in contrast to places like the UK and USA, where the media is awash with statistics from a new poll or survey of the general public.

Data’s everywhere but isn’t about everyone

That’s not to say the development community is faced with a black hole of information; the last decade has seen a proliferation of data about countries in the Global South. Data-driven articles abound and we can all dive into vast datasets, such as the World Bank’s DataBank, the UK Department for International Development’s Research for Development page and the Demographic and Health Surveys program. This increase in the quantity of data has also been accompanied by a rise in its quality, data collection standards have improved and learnings are shared more widely.

But equipped as we are with statistics about literacy, internet usage and vaccination rates, we don’t actually know that much about ordinary people’s views, aspirations and challenges. Sadly, very little of the unprecedented amount of data currently available is about the people that development practitioners are trying to help.

To explain this lack of insight into everyday concerns within our own field, that of media development, it’s partly because audience surveys are expensive to conduct. Furthermore, the organisations that purchase these surveys do so to inform their own programming and they often don’t share the data with anyone other than donors and perhaps some academics. Therefore, small radio stations, TV stations, local NGOs are not able to understand who uses media, or how people make decisions.

Given that many would argue that all international development priorities should be set in a more bottom-up way, the entire sector needs to figure out how to overcome such obstacles for more organisations to better understand the lives we are trying to change for the better.

Meeting the demand for people-centred information

Audiences are at the heart of everything we do, so we put a lot of effort into finding out what people think, believe, worry about and aspire to be. We conduct surveys across Africa and Asia to collect information on how people view their lives, their opinion of the power structures around them, how they make decisions and their attitudes on social topics. We continually adapt how we operate, particularly the content of our programmes, in response to these insights and feel others might find aspects of our feedback-driven, beneficiary-centred approach useful.

But we at BBC Media Action have been guilty of not being able to share all this data, somewhat contributing to the lack of availability of information about ordinary people we’ve highlighted. But thanks to funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), we are excited to soon share our data with others in the development, humanitarian and media sectors to use, analyse and learn from. In October, we’ll launch a data portal, which will be open to everyone and house our survey data from across over 25 surveys in 15 countries, so watch this space!

Evidence of the demand – not just for this people-centred information but guidance on how to use it – materialised at the recent Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) international conference in Jakarta where we presented our plans for a portal. At the meeting, it became clear that people working with media and journalists have little data on the audiences that they are building the skills of journalists to engage. If media specialists don’t have this information – obviously integral to their jobs as it is – it does not bode well for the wider development sector having access, let alone making use of it. This was all the more important given how the media landscape in all developing countries is changing rapidly and getting more and more competitive.

We’d like to close with two questions, the first posed at the GFMD conference: As the media is becoming more competitive, how do practitioners engage their viewers and listeners more?

This question is not just relevant to media practitioners but to everyone working in the development sector, as it ultimately translates to: how can you engage with publics so they inspire and in turn welcome the changes implemented?  Truly a question to guide programming by.

Secondly, and finally, could we set a precedent and encourage others from other organisations to share their data? If others followed suit, it wouldn’t just be the biggest organisations who had access to vital data that enables the public to be understood better – definitely the first step to engaging them in a more meaningful way.

Kavita Abraham Dowsing is Director of Research and Learning at BBC Media Action and Sonia Whitehead is Head of Research Programmes at BBC Media Action.

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work.

Image credit: BBC Media Action

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