The Boring Necessities of the Data Revolution

Let’s not kid ourselves. Although many of us are still trying to figure out what the data revolution is and what it looks we know a few things about what it’s not. One of those things is that it is not about new and shiny stuff. At least not entirely. The discourse around the subject tends to sometimes rapidly turn into one about mobile phones, crowdsourcing and civic tech. But where is a data revolution needed most? I believe that is within governments.

If governments are the primary institutions (and they are) in which a data revolution is most direly needed, then shiny apps and crowdsourced data may not be a primary ingredient to realising the revolution. It’s making sure the boring stuff that governments MUST do is done more efficiently, more affordably and more transparently. It means increasing investments to these efforts, whether its sector reforms or infrastructural improvements and whether its via ODA or internal financing mechanisms.

It may not sound very revolutionary but the national statistics office needs to be more revolutionary in its approach to data. But revolutions cost money. And revolutions take political leadership. And those two are not so easy to get in Africa…at least not at the same time. And that is just my pedestrian observation. We need to advocate for the independence and financial sustainability of national statistics offices through whichever mechanisms are available in-country.

It may not sound very revolutionary but regulation of media and communications needs to be more revolutionary. A data revolution can be easily nipped in the bud by unfriendly legislation. A great deal of effort is needed in examining this and amplifying the call for laws related to access to information. I have observed, as have many others, a more media unfriendly regulatory regime taking shape in Africa with social media turning into dangerous territory for some citizens on the continent. Media provide the channels for the demand side to receive from the supply side. No channels, no revolution.

It may not sound very revolutionary but shrinking civic space will take the wind out of any revolution. There’s not much infomediaries can do in empowering citizens using data when they are locked behind bars, or too scared to publish anything because of the threat of said bars. In some countries there have been more creative attempts at fencing the civic space with legal razor wire like the recent attempt in Kenya to introduce legislation that affects funding of public benefit organisations. Laws that prevent people from exercising their freedom to expression, association and movement make it much harder to make progress towards development.

Let’s approach the data revolution conversation and its place within the post-2015 framework with clear priorities and let’s not forget why we need a revolution. Let’s also not forget the ‘boring’ stuff that needs to continue being done or ramped up to safeguard the revolution from capture and certain death. It’s these little-spoken-of-necessities that could determine whether we only sing a revolution song or actually experience a revolution.