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Stop Funding Data for Superman Systems!

By Guest Writer on March 9, 2017

The data revolution is well upon us, with the total data produced doubling every two years. Organizations are processing of an over-abundance of data using a variety of collection and statistical interpretation approaches and machine learning algorithms to bring transformative insights to a range of industries.

From self-driving cars, precision agriculture, and personalized marketing to proving early warning signals for global conflict, new innovations dependent on data have the power to fundamentally reshape society. This has led to a gold rush in companies finding ways to monetize the opportunity.

In line with this, a wave of innovation in applying methods for local data collection in emerging and frontier markets is unfolding daily. New data collection tools using mobile phones, Interactive Voice Response (IVR), SMS, and tablet assisted enumerators are emerging daily. Remote data collection companies like Premise and Findyr are pioneering methods to “crowdseed” local data collection from regular people with cell phones for a range of commercial and international interests

The world of sustainable development has recognized the potential and has begun investigating how to harness data to measure and create impact. Discussions are underway in organizations across the sustainable development landscape to find ways to capitalize on data in a way that doesn’t just produce flashy dashboards, but actually makes progress against intractable problems in difficult environments.

Investing in Data for Superman

There is a coming deluge of data systems to support real-time awareness and decision-making in the sustainable development space, but the majority are what I affectionately refer to as Data for Superman systems (phrase originated by Fred Tipson).

Usually behind a firewall, expensive data systems are being crafted to support the decision making of really important people— the President of the UN or US, Foreign Secretary of a country, the head of a large health or relief organization — the list is growing daily

What if the way you see northern Nigeria changing is when local advocates for peace, in whatever form they exist, are able to convince the local population to consider and eventually adopt more nonviolent means of resolving their differences?

The belief behind these investments is if we can provide our Superman everything he needs (it usually is a he), when he needs it, and in the way he needs it, he will have access to near magical levers that, if properly configured, can be used to make the problems of, say, Northern Nigeria (where Boko Haram operates) disappear.

What if you don’t believe the actual levers of power your Superman has access to are all that magical? Instead, what if the way you see northern Nigeria change is when local advocates for peace in whatever form they exist, are able to convince the local population to consider and eventually adopt more nonviolent means of resolving their differences?

If that’s how you think change is more likely to occur, it’s really those local advocates, activists, journalists, youth groups, religious leaders and forward thinking government actors who need a decision support environment that helps them understand the world around them in way that impacts their planning and tactics. A decision support environment that better connects them to knowledge and people relevant to their problem has the potential for significant improvements in long term impact.

“Who is your Superman?”

The question we collectively should be asking with our energy and investment dollars is, “Who is the one that benefits from being the most informed?” Who is your superman? Who gets the most benefit from near real-time access to social media analytics, news analytics, geospatial insights, yearly and quarterly structured data about the world around them in usable, actionable form? Who most needs improved awareness connected to drive their actions?

Improving Local Awareness

The sustainable development community regularly invests in programs and approaches in a region to improve a specific development goal or outcome, but these investments are often planned in isolation, disconnected from any larger strategy for regional improvement.

What if we could make investments that lead to improvements in local awareness? What if we could design experiments or projects with verifiable results that had the potential to improve the ability of local social good actors to identify new and emerging challenges quickly? What if we could make investments that improved the probability of finding people and resources to make progress against enduring problems?

The long term answer is not a new website or transformative app, but an improvement in the local information environment — one that allows for awareness of events and trends.

Resources often exist that could aid social good projects, but don’t often go forward due to the lack of collaborative infrastructure, personal connections, and the knowledge necessary to think through where the best investments could be made. Local actors are connected to a variety of ad hoc and formal support networks and resources, including the local technology, telecommunications, or entrepreneur scene. Unfortunately, important information is not evenly distributed.

Too often, participants across the development spectrum will mention they are either not connected with those who can assist, or are not aware of key information or data that could help guide their planning or operations. In taking a recent example, Larissa Fast and Adele Waugaman’s wonderfully detailed action report on the digital use of Ebola, Fighting Ebola with Information, they point to this issue directly:

Several interviewees referred to a “fog of information,” describing the lack of timely, accurate, and accessible data, which clouded situational awareness, impeded effective decision-making, and stymied the response.

Targeted investments that support improved information use across the social good community in a region would raise the capability of what’s possible, and improve resiliency of a region to respond to challenges and crisis situations. If successfully implemented, regional level investments to improve the social good environment could raise the potential to impact all future investments.

This pattern of technology adoption seems to repeat itself with every shiny new object technology brings — most recently, innovations in data.

Lessons from Early Warning Systems

Unfortunately, the Data for Superman dynamic is not a new one. This pattern of technology adoption seems to repeat itself with every shiny new object technology brings — most recently, innovations in data.

This same issue — informing international actors far away from the action over improving local awareness — was discussed ad nauseum with first and second generation early warning systems. As early as 1988, Rupesinghe forcefully addressed the importance of local NGOs — how an improvement in their awareness would lead to improved preparedness and early response.

Apparently, our collective approach for technology adoption in sustainable development hasn’t changed much in almost 30 years. Rupesinghe (1988) cautions:

Generally, discussions relating to early warning systems emanate from the North, and particularly environments which can handle large amounts of information. Little attention is paid, however, to the victims of disasters, or to the competence of local NGOs to strengthen their own capacity to handle information, to evaluate and control their own environment.

Early warning without the ability for (ideally a prepared) early response is near useless. Patrick Meier, reflecting on early warning implementations to date in 2006 makes virtually the very same point:

This begs the questions posed in the introduction: early warning for whom and by whom? Are we just warning ourselves? Or are we warning those at risk? If the former, then both the disaster and conflict early warning fields are doing very well. If the latter, then we have to ask ourselves whether the Emperor is indeed wearing any clothes.

Call to Action: Investment in Local Awareness

In planning their appropriate portfolio investment mix, stakeholders and donors interested in improving sustainable development should be investing in experiments to improve local awareness — to improve the ability of those working sustainable development issues to become better connected to the knowledge, people and resources that can assist them.

Region level improvements point to collective, shared investments — ones that improve the ability of the social good environment itself in a region or country.

How can a social good organization with limited project funds conduct their project in a way that enhances the local sharing environment for future efforts?

The long term answer is not a new website or transformative app, but an improvement in the local information environment — one that allows for awareness of events and trends. One where knowledge about people, skills and potential resources matching is easily disseminated.

An improvement in the ability of the local environment to cultivate and sustain formal and informal information sharing relationships and adapt to changing circumstances would improve the potential impact of the collective efforts.

In each context, the answer will be different, but there are probably obvious starting points in many cases. The possibilities are endless, and could be started at any budget level. Infrastructure improvements could be virtual in nature. Shared resources might include freely available local data science talent to assist social good actors in thinking about their information needs.

If you are in a position to advocate for, or can influence funding and investment decisions, please consider advocating for investments in local awareness.

As you begin to research this as an idea, I think you’ll find shared investments for local awareness have a far greater potential for impact in the long term than most individual projects.

Potential Approaches to Improve Local Awareness

The rest of this article provides approaches and ideas in improving local awareness that can be initiated immediately. These include:

  • Strategies for improving data relevancy
  • Local data commons as a Civic Trust
  • Improving local innovation with the tech for social good community
  • Ideas for assessing a region’s social good environment
  • A systems ecology approach for cultivating social good ecosystems

I detail these thoughts in my original post but I would love to hear what you are doing! If there are approaches you’ve undertaken or are thinking about, please share them in the comments section below.

By Noel Dickover and originally published as Stop Funding Data for Superman Systems! Improve Local Awareness Instead.

Filed Under: Data, Thought Leadership
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5 Comments to “Stop Funding Data for Superman Systems!”

  1. Patrick Fine says:

    A valuable and important summing up of the notion that “information is power”. This is especially true with information that is used towards political ends. The person with the most, best information is in the strongest position to direct the conversation.

    • This is a great point, Patrick. If the local social good actors and networks have the critical information they need, they can respond far more effectively to negative political actions.

  2. Stephen says:

    This is an excellent article. In Jos, Nigeria, the local influencers (imams, preachers, youth leaders) spring into action when there’s an incident. Those are the people who need the situational awareness and information.

    • Hi Stephen, I’d love to see folks like you’re talking about in Jos getting some good ideas from this article in terms of how they can improve their awareness and information.

  3. Thank you for highlighting this important issue in the buzzing world of ICT4D. I was struck by the information problem in even the simplest of cases during work in developing economies. I look forward to partnering with experts on this and especially helping those most vulnerable when our latest information technologies are developed out of their reach. The examples and comments from northern Nigeria are especially crucial.