Tuesday, 10 February 2015

From Davos to New York, data disaggregation takes the world stage

Sarah Lux-Lee

Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, once joked that although he and Shaquille O’Neal have an average height of 6 feet, standing at 5 and 7 feet respectively, the NBA might be wise to consider more than just their average height before deciding to place Reich on the team.

Today, this sentiment is becoming increasingly central in international development. 

The importance of data in driving evidence-based development has been increasingly emphasized in development discussions.  The availability of real-time information in the developing world is growing, and development organizations are harnessing that data to better understand the needs of their constituents, and to devise policy and implementation strategies that best meet the most urgent development goals.

However, Big Data, along with the statistics it generates, often reflects broad, national averages that can paper over the experiences and needs of the most marginalized segments of society.  Just as the average height of 6 feet obscured Reich’s slightness relative to Shaq, so too the broad experience of a nation, as reflected by its aggregated data, can hide from view the needs of society’s most vulnerable groups.

The importance of disaggregating data in order to shine a light on the experience of disadvantaged groups was a common theme at two very different diplomatic events I attended in the past couple of weeks.  The first, held in Davos alongside the World Economic Forum in January, was a strategic discussion on how to engender a people-cantered approach to the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The second, the UN Economic & Social Council’s Youth Forum held in New York in February, brought together hundreds of young people from around the world to discuss the best ways to engage youth to become active global citizens.  Both discussions identified disaggregated data as essential to ensuring that development practitioners can best address the unique needs of those most in need.

In Davos, the point was eloquently made by Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who noted that “it is rare for people to be heard as individuals; they are usually heard as a collective.”  Instead, Roth calls for a human rights approach to development, requiring development practitioners to refocus on the experience of the individual in order to ensure that those facing social exclusion or discrimination are protected.  The notion was echoed by Susan Myers of the UN Foundation, who identified major attainment gaps that become evident when data is reanalysed through a gender lens.  Myers pointed to the Data2X initiative as a leading effort to disaggregate data to reveal the unique situation of women and girls in developing countries.

Data disaggregation was similarly a focus at the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum in New York, where two days of dynamic discussions emphasized the point that “youth” tends to be regarded as a homogenous monolith, masking the needs of those young people who are especially disadvantaged due to minority status, geographic remoteness, disability, gender, or other distinguishing characteristics.  Youth representatives from around the world agreed that the needs of young people cannot effectively be addressed, nor their meaningful engagement in development obtained, without a better understanding of their heterogeneous characteristics and needs.

Increasingly, development practitioners are questioning the “Big” in “Big Data”, seeking to identify trends within broader datasets to ensure that the diversity of the human experience is properly reflected.  As we pursue a new agenda for development post-2015, data disaggregation will be an integral tool to ensure that no individual is left behind.

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