Data for development

Data, collated through sound monitoring and evaluation, is invaluable for non-profit organisations (NPOs) and companies alike to be able to prove the impact of their social development initiatives. As the need for, and variety of approaches to, collecting data grows, so too does the potential for data to provide insight that can be used to gain a better understanding of the quality of initiatives, as well as to improve programme planning and targeting.

A panel discussion at Trialogue’s 2017 Business in Society Conference emphasised the value of data for impact in development and, through the lens of their own organisations, highlighted how it could be used at global, corporate and NPO level.

Data can be used to frame social issues and mobilise towards solutions 

Adebayo Fayoyin of the United Nations Population Fund kicked off the session by noting that data and development are closely linked. “For the UN, data is critical in framing global policy and responses. For example, in framing the HIV agenda for Africa, we need data on the spread and scope of the disease.” He added that data can be used to frame – and mobilise – public discussions. “Data should be used to hold policy makers accountable, and to ensure the participation of youth in the development discourse.”

Fayoyin provided the example of U-Report – a free SMS service, based in Uganda and supported by UNICEF, that enables young Ugandans to comment on issues that they care about. Participants can participate in polls or share information on various issues – from crime or infectious disease outbreaks to child marriage. The system has become a tool for holding members of parliament accountable for issues in their constituencies, and for identifying issue ‘hot spots’. “The result is that the voice of young people is heard in the decision making processes, and data is critical to this.”

Chris Ross, from Vodacom, pointed out that data for development is the application of technology – not ‘tech for tech’s sake.’ “Big data is what enables us to analyse large amounts of information, to interpret it, and to use it to make good decisions, with quick response times.” Ross provided the example of Vodacom’s Gender-Based Violence (GBV) command centres. Each of these centres receives around 25 000 calls per month from GBV victims. “Because we can determine the location of each caller, we can quickly provide support to that person. We are also able to research correlations – for example between the number of instances of GBV and the locations of establishments that sell alcohol – and we can plan accordingly.”

Ross also said that in Vodacom’s ICT education programmes, their data collection and analysis enables them to review what the children are doing, what they like doing and where their specific needs are. “By looking at their behaviour, we can evolve the programmes for them and tweak them very quickly. In this way data can be both proactive and reactive.”

Establishing a standardised framework for data collection

Duncan Luke, founder of The Social Collective, commented that, for companies, data is more valuable than gold, but NPOs still see it as a hurdle. “The key is to find an agreed framework, and monetise what we have – for example use and capitalise on the data that NPOs can provide. “South Africa does not have a data collection problem,” Luke added, “and there is a lot of exciting development in the space. The issue is understanding what value the data capturing provides, and educating people about why they are providing this data.”

The difficulty, as Luke noted, is establishing a standardised framework. “Everyone generates data on the same issues and then, often, the data doesn’t agree. We need to align data collection and distribution systems,” commented Fayoyin. “And for that, we need collaboration – in which we generate, distribute and use the data, and that is a serious challenge.”

Collaboration, as Luke noted, depends on frameworks that are available. “What are the standard frameworks? What frameworks are we using to compare the projects that we are already working on? All organisations must be stringent about how they prepare their data, and their data collection frameworks, over time. And you can’t simply change your metrics for every new funder.”

Audience members from the non-profit sector raised the issue of ‘double counting’ and integrating their systems with government and with multiple donors. “This is a major issue” agreed Fayoyin. “What we need is a data for development framework at a country level, and this needs to be led by government. This will ensure alignment. But there are huge challenges, and requires significant leadership at that level.”

Session facilitator and Trialogue Director, Cathy Duff, offered the example of the United Kingdom, where the Department of Justice set up a data lab for the sharing of data to consider re-offending rates and what types of interventions were proving successful.

“It must come from the centre,” agreed Ross, “but it also requires willingness of people. The technology is there, but for example, if people don’t trust electronics and write things down, it makes it much harder. The more you can automate, the better. But you cannot make decisions on inaccurate data.”

Luke agreed stating empathically: “we can’t invest enough in this. All organisations need to invest in proper data management systems.” However, he acknowledged that there are challenges to integrating data at various levels – for example the obstacles provided by the Protection of Personal Information Act requirements. “As much as open data is powerful and exciting, we need to fix missing data problems. And then, how do we protect our data? With open source data, how can we ensure that we both contribute and gain maximum use from it? How can smaller organisations add influence?”

Politics of data

Fayoyin also noted that there are considerable ‘politics of data’. “Information is great, but un-validated information feeds into all sorts of incorrect discussions. Furthermore, everyone has proprietorship around their data, or – in other cases – governments don’t want certain data made available.

Ross, however disagreed with this, suggesting that both public and private spheres have the same interest in data and the same concerns regarding privacy. “Collaboration would mean that we can ensure accuracy and reduce costs. One set of data could be used by everyone who needs it, rather than everyone sourcing their own.”

“As more and more data enters the public domain, you also need to be a lot more careful of interpreting it,” noted Fayoyin. “We are living in an age of influence and journalists often draw incorrect conclusions. So, in line with providing and using data, we also need to enhance our data appreciation and data education. We need to ensure a culture of proper use of data.”


This session was presented in partnership with


  • Adebayo Fayoyin, United Nations Population Fund
  • Duncan Luke, The Social Collective
  • Chris Ross, Vodacom
  • Cathy Duff, Trialogue (facilitator)

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2017-12-04T18:37:53+00:00 June 5th, 2017|ICT for Development|