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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Data Geeks Make Change

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October 28, 2013

During the recent UN General Assembly (UNGA) and at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting there was much talk of something we love at the foundation. Maybe you heard or read that Melinda was referred to as a “Data Geek” by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. And while we do have a definite fondness for “geeks” (after all, we do have a co-chair who may be associated with geekdom slightly more than Melinda), we are thrilled about data and the rising interest in data for development.

 Numbers and data paint a more colorful picture of the individuals and communities we work with. They not only enable a deeper understanding of the challenges that people face, they help inform decision making to improve lives.For some, data is not an obviously appealing topic. 

Images of ones and zeroes, or endless pages of data tables might come to mind. But take a closer look and you might see how numbers and data paint a more colorful picture of the individuals and communities we work with. They not only enable a deeper understanding of the challenges that people face, they help inform decision making to improve lives.

We can all agree that data is essential to developing a baseline understanding of problems we face, designing effective policies, developing strategies that work, and measuring progress. 

 There is a window of opportunity–now–to capitalize on the awareness of the importance of data at all levels.In fact, the linkage between data and action is so strong that “what gets measured gets done" is conventional wisdom. This linkage between data and action is reflected in the emphasis on measurable indicators as a core element of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It’s also why the current discussions on the next set of global development goals (after the MDGs end in 2015) looks to be re-doubling the emphasis on data and measurement.

Recently, the UN Secretary General High Level Panel of Eminent Persons called for a “data revolution”  that would “fully integrate statistics into decision making, promote open access to, and use of, data and ensure increased support of statistical systems." The data revolution was also the focus of what was undoubtedly the most important meeting at the UNGA. Granted the Data & Analytics Team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may be somewhat biased, but we weren’t the only ones in the room that thought this! 

The discussion centered on the questions:

  • What does a “data revolution” actually mean in practice? 
  • Who should be driving it? 
  • How could it be implemented? 
  • How will it help to improve human well-being and promote sustainable development?

The consensus

Better data is essential to achieving ambitious goals, and is at the core of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, in terms of tracking progress, delivering on transparency and accountability, and providing the information to inform policies, development programs and private sector investment. 

There is a window of opportunity–now–to capitalize on heightened political interest, continuing improvements in the usefulness and availability of data collection and distribution technology, and a greater understanding & awareness of the importance of data at all levels.

The call for a “data revolution” can be answered by many–from the national statistical offices to digital campaigns like the ONE Factivist campaign. Tomorrow, we’ll look at what this data revolution might look like in practice.  

 
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