We don’t just need more data – we need more people using the data we have

In the past few weeks, I ran across a number of posts and online discussions on the issues of data, or more specifically – the lack of data, in particular data on females. From Melinda Gates (https://medium.com/@melindagates/to-close-the-gender-gap-we-have-to-close-the-data-gap-e6a36a242657?linkId=24656141#.cogmil280) to UNICEF (http://www.unicef.org/mena/MENA-Birth_Registration_report_low_res-01.pdf) to small and large NGOs – everyone seemed to be talking about a shortage of data and how it (the shortage) hampers the efforts to foster female inclusion – social, financial, etc. 

I have a lot of respect for Melinda Gates. I generally like UNICEF and follow their work  (although I do have my reservations when it comes to UN as an organization at large). I spent almost a decade working in International Development. And I am a founder and a CEO at an NGO. And as an international development insider and a researcher I see that the problem is not just the data gap – the problem is a gap between data “producers,” i.e. research practitioners and academia, and data “users” – implementing NGOs, donors, policy makers and so on.  

If you flip through the UNICEF report I linked above, the very last pages carry a comprehensive table of 100+ countries with the percentage of children registered/not registered at birth – disaggregated by sex, location, region, and household wealth. Some of the data are fresh from the press– published just months before the UNICEF report. Just that table represents an enormous amount of data – and the level of disaggregation shows there are more data available. Any stakeholders aside from UNICEF used the data to increase female-child visibility? 

Another example is the Financial Inclusion Insights program, which I led at InterMedia Africa until last January. Between 2013 and 2015, we conducted annual surveys in 4 countries in Africa collecting over 3,000 data points for 3,000 to 6,000 people depending on the country – that’s over 42 million data points every single year, covering multiple aspects of males AND females livesfrom education to income-generating activities to financial tools to outlook for the future to self-efficacy – the list goes on and on. This is a goldmine for a financial institution interested in “including” females. I am yet to hear of a provider or a government agency using the data consistently – for any decisions related to financial inclusion.

The examples are many, and from where I stand – the data are abundant, and research is delivered on a relatively consistent basis. But the data I see are invisible to many practitioners in the field. Why the disconnect? I think there are three key reasons:

  1. Practitioners fail to do their due diligence.About a year ago, I met David Damberger who used to work with Engineers Without Borders. In his TED speech (https://www.ted.com/talks/david_damberger_what_happens_when_an_ngo_admits_failure), David talks about international aid groups making the same mistakes in the same regions on the same projects over and over again  – because they fail to realize that similar work has been done before. All too often, NGOs assume they are starting from scratch and their projects are as new to the world as they are to them. Yet, the field of international development is not new – there is a long history of successes, failures AND research/data accompanying both. Moreover, there are on-going development initiatives – most accompanied by some research activities informing and evaluating their progress. In short – there are a lot of data already out there, one just needs to take a look.
  2. Researchers fail to communicate the relevance and practicality of their data.In his book David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell showcases a story of David Boies, a dyslexic student turning one of the best trial lawyers in the world. When talking about his strengths, Boies says that the difficulty he had with reading led him to “simplify issues to their basics. And that is very powerful, because in trial cases, judges and juniors – neither of them have the time or the ability to become an expert in the subject. One of my strengths is presenting a case that they can understand.” 

Many researchers (including me) get stuck in the comfort of their “ivory tower” from where they look down at those who do not understand the sophisticated language, which is used to communicate scholarly ideas. Yet, research and data (with the exception of maybe centuries-long math problems) are only as good as they are actionable. International development professionals are not experts in research – and they should not be because their role requires them to be experts in something else – public policy, financial products, logistics, etc. It is the responsibility of a researcher to carry on a sophisticated study and then translate it into simple (but not simplistic!), practical and actionable insights. 

  • We all fail to recognize that we are not working in a sanitized world of clinical trialswhere “experiment subjects” are isolated from influences other than those intended by the researcher.  When we talk about “females,” we are talking about mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and girlfriends – not some abstract species cleanly isolated from other species – “males.” When we talk to men, we learn a lot about women in their world – directly and indirectly. When we target women with interventions, we indirectly target men who have a strong say on what women do, think and feel. And ultimately, we want the interventions to benefit the entire community – not just females. While I do agree that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” capturing female’s experiences in exclusive, narrow-focused studies is not always the answer. In many cases true insights come from comparing the experiences of females to those of males in the context where males and females interconnect and interact.   

So, what are the solutions? I believe, those are also three:

  1. We need to take stock of what data are available in the world of international development as well as adjacent sectors (e.g., FMCG marketing) – why can’t we ask Coca-Cola what they know about girls in Africa? After all, Melinda Gates has referenced Coca-Cola’s success in Africa on a number of occasions.
  2. We need to understand what exact data are missing and who is in the best position to fill in the gap.
  3. Finally, we need to establish better communication links between practitioners and researchers – the touch points – to ensure those who need data can access data in  “user-friendly” format and within a reasonable timeframe. The Open Data movement is a good start, yet it mostly focuses on openness and sharing not the format. 

So, more work is needed – and that is exciting!