In 2004 the Overseas Development Institute organized a seminar in London to discuss the following question: Does Evidence Matter? One of the speakers was Vince Cable, at that time the shadow minister for trade and industry with the Lib Dem party. Cable spoke at that workshop about some of the gaps that separate the political and the research worlds. Speed: policy research takes time. Policy makers often need to make quick decisions and have to stick to them. Superficiality: policy researchers dig deep into their topics and like to dig even deeper if they can. Policy makers often juggle large portfolios and in order to go in any depth they have to rely on advisors.
I thought about these gaps while I was in Bali to participate in the Data Innovation for Policy Making conference in the end of November. Here is the Storify of what happened.
Ten years have passed since the workshop in ODI and a lot has happened. More and more countries (e.g. South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, South Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand as we heard at the conference) have embarked in their own journeys to the develop systems and processes that enhance the role that knowledge and research play in informing, monitoring and evaluating policy.
While these are individual journeys shaped by specific social norms, history, and culture they have today a common denominator: the explosion of digital data and data innovation and the opportunities that this creates to inform policy decisions.
Indonesia is a good example. There is no other city in the world that sends more tweets everyday than Jakarta. By 2015 there will be 145 million internet users in Indonesia. Indonesia is the fourth largest market for Facebook with 43 million users. Tweets are analyzed and use to provide almost just-in-time information about floods around the city and to inform emergency interventions as shown by Floodtags.
The opportunities that data provides for policy making were at the center of the presentations, panels, and plenary sessions at the Data Innovation conference. The conference managed a balanced blend of data practitioners, government officials from various countries, private and non-governmental sector, activists, and donor funded programmes.
Below some of the points that I brought home from the two days in Bali. Data innovation is a complex topic and there are certainly more points and issues worth mentioning but the ones that I list below are closely linked to my current work:
- There are old data, new data, and more data than ever around us. As one of the speakers said: ‘data are all around us, invisible yet there.’ They have the potential to provide us the new information and evidence and improve the ways polices are decided. To do so we need the right instruments to interpret data. Data analysis skills are an emerging and critical field of expertise that policy makers and bureaucracies should find ways to access.
- Policy makers need to know what they can get from the data they have and, at the same time, identify the data they miss. That will help to ask the right policy questions to lead the work of data analysts as well as the planning of data investment strategies for future policy making decisions.
- The potential and opportunities provided by data were on display at the conference with examples from government agencies and non-government actors. As a follow up it would be interesting to investigate what it took in terms of change of attitudes and perceptions, financial resources, human resources development to take data innovation on board as a new source of evidence for policy making.
- The experiences shared at the conference show that an approach that works well with data innovation it is experimentation. Start by identifying relatively-safe-to-fail programmes and policies. Learn. Then scale investments up.
- Data innovations provide incredible opportunities to open government up to civil society and to have citizens actively contributing and complementing the generation fo evidence by government agencies through feedback mechanisms, validations forums, and the analysis of social media flows.
- It strikes me that the ODI workshop in 2004 displayed the fast moving pace of policy making vs. the reflective pace of policy research. In Bali it seems to me that while data innovation move extremely quickly, bureaucracies struggle to keep pace.
In conclusion, is data innovation helping to strengthen an evidence-based approach to policy making? The answer from the conference is: YES. There are many concrete examples that that happening in Indonesia as elsewhere.
While traveling along the new toll road that brings to the new airport in Denpasar I thought how energizing it had been to hear about what can be done with and through data innovation. Data innovation is opening new spaces for informing policy making. At the same time I was also starting to form a question in the back of my mind: how are data innovation changing policy research? Is data innovation putting the researchers and the way policy research is done as it was described at the 2004 workshop in ODI out of business? Has it already?