The data revolution in Africa is characterised by increasing amounts of data now being produced at faster speeds, by more actors (beyond the State) deploying various technologies and innovations than ever before. This revolution, is also characterised by greater dissemination and analytical capabilities through new technologies and social media.
Last week, data enthusiasts, government representatives, civil society representatives and corporate honchos gathered in Nairobi for the 'High-Level Meeting on Data for Development in Africa'. Convened by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD), the meeting, sought to "amplify the voices of African governments, regional bodies, private sector, and civil society partners across the region and the world, to ensure that data becomes part of the infrastructure for sustainable development, while showcasing the new partnerships, projects, and institutions that are leading the way".
Several key themes and messages emerged from the meeting. Various governments made commitments (albeit vague and too broad) that seek to address the barriers that get in the way of getting data through reducing inequality, improving access to technology, investing in required expertise and technical competence, introducing legislative and policy frameworks to address privacy concerns, and scaling up successful innovations. The commitments covered the fields of business, agriculture, civil registration, health, migration, and data capacity.
In addition, twenty-three innovative projects from civil society organizations, academia and the private sector also showcased partnerships and initiatives that contribute to achieving and monitoring progress of the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. These innovations, projects and partnerships covered the various ends of the data and technology spectrum. Kenya's leading telco, Safaricom, also highlighted the role private sector actors can play in integrating the SDGs within their businesses.
Emphatically, to ensure that data works for the people of Africa, catalytic action to strengthen data as a critical component of the infrastructure of sustainable development is needed. Governments, academia, private sector players and civil society organizations must therefore forge unique partnerships that are backed by strong political will to ensure that effective coordination and collaboration translates into concrete actions. These collaborations and partnerships should be forged across boundaries and disciplines; include both small and large-scale interventions; and capitalise on Africa's digital renaissance.
As a demonstration of this political will, several governments in Africa are blazing the trail in numerous ways. For instance, the Government of Senegal now considers investment in data as important as it would treat investment in physical infrastructure such as roads. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, more policy-makers and legislators are now using data to inform their work and make planning is continuously evidence-based.
Despite the progressive developments, several cautionary statements are worth noting. Firstly, data is not a silver-bullet to addressing present development challenges and/or problems. To be transformative, use of data and evidence must include political agency and citizen mobilization. Thus, while data may highlight important development cleavages, it may not guarantee change if not used appropriately within the various political contexts. 'Everyone Counts', a new global initiative by CARE, KWANTU and World Vision (that was also showcased in the meeting) seeks to contribute to this agenda.
Secondly, there is need for data 'experts' to move beyond the chronic obsession with big numbers to ensure greater inclusion of marginalised and vulnerable segments of the population. Achieving this will require a 'business unusual' approach that devises better data collection methodologies and technologies that must collect more and better than ever before. This 'new' data should then be used together with administrative and open data to ensure that 'no one is left behind'.
Thirdly, the utility of citizen-generated data is still contentious - especially within state institutions. Increasing the value of this data must therefore involve standardization of data collection tools and methodologies across the board (to the extent possible), making consideration for ethical approvals, subjecting this data to quality audits and triangulation, as well as adhering to quality assurance standards.
Fourthly, the emergence of various data communities within African countries has made the roles of National Statistical Offices in the data ecosystem even more crucial. However, significant capacity and technical disparities exist between the various National Statistical Offices (NSOs) in Africa. To realise the potential of data and statistics in achieving sustainable development outcomes, financial and human capacities of these institutions must to be enhanced. This would ensure that NSOs are capable of producing quality statistics for purposes of both planning for and monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals, include local level or rural areas, and improve the gender disaggregation of data and statistics. Moreover, with the appropriate human, technical and financial capacities, National Statistical Offices can provide much needed leadership in promoting collaboration, harmonization and coordination of the various in-country, regional and global data communities and actors.