Bigger, Better Data and Resilience: Part 2

This is a guest post from Beyond Access Friend Linda Raftree. It was originally published on her blog, “Wait…What?” and it’s the second in a series of posts from Linda about data and international development. Read part one to get caught up. The series stems from discussion at the February 2014 NYC Technology Salon on the link between bigger, better data and resilience. 

What’s the link between big data and resilience?

‘Resilience’ as a concept is contested, difficult to measure and complex. In its most simple definition, resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back or bounce forward. (For an interesting discussion on whether we should be talking about sustainability or resilience, see this piece). One discussant noted that global processes and structures are not working well for the poor, as evidenced from continuing cycles of poverty and glaring wealth inequalities. In this view, people are poor as a result of being more exposed and vulnerable to shocks, at the same time, their poverty increases their vulnerability, and it’s difficult to escape from the cycle where over time, small and large shocks deplete assets. An assets-based model of resilience would help individuals, families and communities who are hit by a shock in one sphere — financial, human, capital, social, legal and/or political — to draw on the assets within another sphere to bounce back or forward.

Big data could help this type of an assets-based model of resilience by predicting /helping poor and vulnerable people predict when a shock might happen and preparing for it. Big data analytics, if accessible to the poor, could help them to increase their chances of making better decisions now and for the future. Big data then, should be made accessible and available to communities so that they can self-organize and decrease their own exposure to shocks and hazards and increase their ability to bounce back and bounce forward. Big data could also help various actors to develop a better understanding of the human ecosystem and contribute to increasing resilience.

Can ivory tower big data approaches contribute to resilience?

The application of big data approaches to efforts that aim to increase resilience and better understand human ecosystems often comes at things from the wrong angle, according to one discussant. We are increasingly seeing situations where a decision is made at the top by people who know how to crunch data yet have no way of really understanding the meaning of the data in the local context. In these cases, the impact of data on resilience will be low, because resilience can only truly be created and supported at the local level. Instead of large organizations thinking about how they can use data from afar to ‘rescue’ or ‘help’ the poor, organizations should be working together with communities in crisis (or supporting local or nationally based intermediaries to facilitate this process) so that communities can discuss and pull meaning from the data, contextualize it and use it to help themselves. They can also be more informed what data exist about them and more aware of how these data might be used.

For the Human Rights community, for example, the story is about how people successfully use data to advocate for their own rights, and there is less emphasis on large data sets. Rather, the goal is to get data to citizens and communities. It’s to support groups to define and use data locally and to think about what the data can tell them about the advocacy path they could take to achieve a particular goal.

Can data really empower people?

To better understand the opportunities and challenges of big data, we need to unpack questions related to empowerment. Who has the knowledge? The access? Who can use the data? Salon participants emphasized that change doesn’t come by merely having data. Rather it’s about using big data as an advocacy tool to tell the world to change processes and to put things normally left unsaid on the table for discussion and action. It is also about decisions and getting ‘big data’ to the ‘small world,’ e.g., the local level. According to some, this should be the priority of ‘big data for development’ actors over the next 5 years.

Though some participants at the Salon felt that data on their own do not empower individuals; others noted that knowing your credit score or tracking how much you are eating or exercising can indeed be empowering to individuals. In addition, the process of gathering data can help communities understand their own realities better, build their self-esteem and analytical capacities, and contribute to achieving a more level playing field when they are advocating for their rights or for a budget or service. As one Salon participant said, most communities have information but are not perceived to have data unless they collect it using ‘Western’ methods. Having data to support and back information, opinions and demands can serve communities in negotiations with entities that wield more power. (See the book “Who Counts: The power of participatory statistics” on how to work with communities to create ‘data’ from participatory approaches).

On the other hand, data are not enough if there is no political will to make change to respond to the data and to the requests or demands being made based on the data. As one Salon participant said: “giving someone a data set doesn’t change politics.”

Read part one of this series, or check out the original on “Wait…What?” And look out for part three coming soon — including recommendations for moving forward.

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