From truth to power: data-to-action alliances

The power of data is on everyone’s lips. And it’s not just profit-driven international corporations that are excited. Data innovation is increasingly being harnessed by governments, development agencies and civil society organisations. Some initiatives allow citizens to submit data to authorities, for example through reporting apps, and aim to support more informed decisionmaking. Others allow citizens to monitor information released by governments, for example on budgets and service delivery, with the goal of improving accountability. Whether it involves information flowing ‘up’ to governments, or ‘down’ to citizens, data innovation holds the promise of driving more responsive policy-making, and ultimately more inclusive societies.

Unfortunately, the emerging evidence suggests that information alone cannot achieve these things. There are several reasons for this, sometimes lost in the rush to set up exciting new initiatives. Firstly, ‘evidence’ is only one of the things that policymakers may take into account when making decisions; personal interests, or those of a core electorate, may represent a bigger priority. Secondly, the data that governments release is often 'opaque', failing to reveal how institutions behave in practice.

Thirdly, even when data released into the public domain does provide useful information, it may result in little change if it is not perceived as ‘actionable’. This problem is linked to the failure of specialist monitoring organisations to work effectively with action-focused advocacy organizations and social movements to turn information into a tool for change. As leading accountability scholars Jonathan Fox and Joy Aceron have pointed out, there are significant differences in the social profile and worldviews of these two types of organisation, sometimes obscured under the broad umbrella of ‘civil society’.

For example, monitoring organisations tend to see the state as distinct from potentially corrupt elite interests. Their mission is to plug information gaps and make the ‘machine’ work better. Organisations more focused on action and advocacy, by contrast, tend to start with the assumption that the state is ‘captured’, and needs to be goaded into action from the outside. Such differences can lead to mutual mistrust, making effective collaboration difficult.

Data-to-action alliances

If information is not enough to drive change, data innovation needs to do more than be a way of speaking truth to power; it needs to help make the truth more powerful. How can it do this?

One answer is suggested by an emerging set of initiatives we might call data-to-action alliances. These bring together organisations specialised in the gathering, dissemination and analysis of data with more action-focused organisations. In different ways, they aim to make information an ‘actionable’ tool for change. These alliances can be between different civil society organisations, but can also include public bodies such as universities, or development agencies like the UNDP and the World Bank.

While building these alliances is not a straightforward task, a growing number of successful attempts suggest that it is a strategy with significant potential rewards. Some interesting examples include:

P-tracking (participatory tracking), developed by the World Bank Social Observatory to help monitor a poverty alleviation programme in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Members of a village women’s self-help group are trained to carry out tablet-based surveys measuring various dimensions of wellbeing and empowerment that they have identified as significant. But rather than just being transmitted to managers or external researchers, this data is turned into a tool for local action. To make it ‘legible’ in a context of high illiteracy, the data is visualised in a graphic display, which allows a village to compare its performance with that of its neighbours. The self-help groups are trained to use the data visualisation to take problems to local political assemblies, in order to shape the programmes of local decision makers and to hold them to account on commitments made.

Textbook Count, a collaboration launched in 2003 to tackle corruption surrounding textbook costs in the Philippines. The Philippines Department of Education partnered with Government Watch (G-Watch), a university-led initiative, to introduce a more transparent procurement process. But this top-down effort was crucially accompanied by the bottom-up monitoring of a coalition of (non-political) civil society organisations, such as the Scout movement. This enabled scrutiny of the entire chain, from procurement to distribution at the school-level, with 71% of local delivery points covered. The results of the programme were significant; by 2005 an estimated 1.84 million USD had been saved from avoided corruption.

The Living Wage Campaign, launched in East London in 2001 and today UK-wide. The Centre for Research in Social Policy developed a participatory methodology to calculate a “Minimum Income Standard” (MIS) - the minimum income required to afford an acceptable standard of living. But rather than simply publishing the results in a research paper, they partnered with Citizens UK, a broad-based civil society alliance composed largely of faith institutions and schools, which put public pressure on a wide range of employers to voluntarily pay a “Living Wage” (based on the MIS). The campaign has involved the active participation of large numbers of ordinary citizens not engaged in traditional politics. Beyond direct benefits for over 70,000 families who have been lifted out of working poverty by the Living Wage since 2001, the campaign has had a substantial impact on national policy debates, and played an important role in the UK Government’s announcement in 2015 of the “National Living Wage”

Next steps

Nesta is currently scoping a new project on data innovation in international development, with a focus on the technologies, processes and partnerships that can help citizens drive concrete change. For further information contact [email protected]


Isaac Stanley

Isaac Stanley

Isaac Stanley

Researcher, Inclusive Innovation

Isaac was a Researcher in the Inclusive Innovation team at Nesta

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