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Data innovation: where to start? With the road less taken

Over the past decade we’ve seen an explosion in the amount of data we create, with more being captured about our lives than ever before. As an industry, the public sector creates an enormous amount of information - from census data to tax data to health data. When it comes to use of the data however, despite many initiatives trying to promote open and big data for public policy as well as evidence-based policymaking, we feel there is still a long way to go.

Why is that? Data initiatives are often created under the assumption that if data is available, people (whether citizens or governments) will use it. But this hasn’t necessarily proven to be the case, and this approach neglects analysis of power and an understanding of the political dynamics at play around data (particularly when data is seen as an output rather than input).

Many data activities are also informed by the ‘extractive industry’ paradigm: citizens and frontline workers are seen as passive ‘data producers’ who hand over their information for it to be analysed and mined behind closed doors by ‘the experts’.

Given budget constraints facing many local and central governments, even well intentioned initiatives often take an incremental, passive transparency approach (i.e. let’s open the data first then see what happens), or they adopt a ‘supply/demand’ metaphor to data provision and usage.

But, as a Reboot study compellingly argued, if we want to understand and rethink governance data ecosystems, “the labels of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ are false binaries and should be discarded. Rather, it is necessary to map the range of actors who have influence — formal and informal — over a specific governance issue, and to understand how their respective histories, interests, and relationships intersect and collectively shape outcomes.”

As a response to these issues, this blog series will explore the hypothesis that putting the question of citizen and government agency - rather than openness, volume or availability - at the centre of data initiatives has the potential to unleash greater, potentially more disruptive innovation and to focus efforts (ultimately leading to cost savings).

Our argument will be that data innovation initiatives should be informed by the principles that:

  • People closer to the problem are the best positioned to provide additional context to the data and potentially act on solutions (hence the importance of "thick data").

  • Citizens are active agents rather than passive providers of ‘digital traces’.

  • Governments are both users and providers of data.

  • We should ask at every step of the way how can we empower communities and frontline workers to take better decisions over time, and how can we use data to enhance the decision making of every actor in the system (from government to the private sector, from private citizens to social enterprises) in their role of changing things for the better.

Following this logic, for example, an open data initiative would focus less on getting all possible datasets released (in a supply and demand approach) and would focus instead on the whole chain of data collection and interpretation on a specific issue (say, waste or homelessness) and ask at each step of the way key questions about agency.

By approaching the issue in this way, what might have been originally envisaged as a data portal or a dashboard project could instead end up being an interactive mobile interface that allows citizens to take their own distributed action or to self-organise and interpret the data.

One such example is Poverty Stoplight, a data innovation initiative from Fundancion Paraguaya aimed at empowering poor people to take action to improve their condition, which summarises this shift in thinking well:

“Traditionally, it has been a government social worker who administers a survey and then takes that information with them. Poverty Stoplight is the opposite. Here, a family assesses their level of poverty in 50 specific indicators, and the results are visualised in a dashboard for the family to use. So instead of being an index for policymakers, the Poverty Stoplight is a tool for a very different kind of decision maker: the head of the household.”

Martin Burt, CEO, Fundación Paraguaya

Building on this type of approach, this blog series will refer to concrete practitioner experience to highlight different ways data initiatives are giving agency to both citizens and governments. We’ll also provide some hands-on tools for those interested in exploring it in their own work.


Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Giulio Quaggiotto

Senior Programme Manager in Innovation Skills

Giulio was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Skills team, responsible for advising international development and public sector organisations on the implementation of their i…

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Isobel Roberts

Isobel Roberts

Isobel Roberts

Content and Communications Manager, Innovation Skills

Isobel worked in the Innovation Skills team as Content and Communications Manager, helping to build Nesta's learning and development offering.

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