The Data Revolution for human development
12 Nov 2014 by Selim Jahan, Director, Human Development Report Office
A World That Counts, the report by the UN Secretary General’s Data Revolution Group, was released recently. The report contains much that is important to global development. But what, I have been pondering, might the data revolution mean for human development and human development reporting in particular? Three ideas occur immediately.
First, the importance of data for both decision-making and analytical debate needs no demonstration. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a remarkable example of the power a simple measure can wield to reframe debate towards genuine development outcomes. Now, in a data-rich world one could argue for the index also to include much more that is important to people: measures of voice, equality, sustainability, security, freedom and dignity. All of these would help paint a richer picture of human development. But such data – at least not yet - are not available in most countries. I hope the data revolution will change that.
Second, our 700 national human development reports always are built on data, often with disaggregation and innovative analysis. Of course such evidence-based analysis is vital to ensuring the reports’ robustness and usefulness. But I believe that the conversations about what data to use, that are a key part of the process of analysis and writing a report, are often also beneficial to human development. When handled well, and involving many stakeholders, they can develop capacity within a country, provide a platform for democratic dialogues and “make the business of government easier”, as a 2013 report from Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation argued. The data revolution has the potential to enrich such conversations enormously.
Third, and most pressingly, the data revolution is already having a direct impact on human development. Access to good information is an important part of expanding our choices. Not only does it enable citizens to hold their leaders accountable, but it can help all of us take better decisions in our daily lives: which school to send our children to, which hospital to visit if we fall ill, where to look for work, and so on. But, just as with any valuable resource, access to good information is not equally distributed around the world or people lack the basic skills to access or understand it. This has to change. What is important now, as this report rightly points out, is that we make sure that the coming revolution leads to the world having the right information, at the right time, to build accountability and make good decisions and so improve lives.