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A Look at the Numbers: Reviewing Some Major Data-Related Projects Announced in 2010

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Screenshot of the CGD Committment to Development Initiative website
  A screenshot of the CGD Committment to Development Initiative website

With all the talk in the development community of evidence-based program design, transparent indicators, impact assessments, output-based aid, etc, it is no wonder that data is so important. Data is about more than justifying next year’s budget or keeping funders happy—good data underpins good development practice, helping us use our scare resources more effectively. It informs risk management strategies; ensures more efficient capital allocation; and can help identify opportunities, obstacles and priorities during pre-project analyses.

Unfortunately, collecting and interpreting data can also be a very challenging part of what we do. Anyone who’s ever worked in the field knows that robust data collection can be difficult due to:

  • Disincentives to accurate reporting (for example, fear of the tax bureau);
  • A lack of collection training/capacity;
  • No systems in place for record capture or storage; and
  • A mismatch between project reporting periods and the time it takes real impact to manifest (especially in projects focused on enabling environment, business development services or health/human services).

Data interpretation also has its own challenges when faced with issues of correlation vs. causation and all too often, you’re comparing apples and oranges.

So what’s the answer? Many leading development organizations (both government and non-profit) have taken a stab at tackling these issues and their solutions seem to be three-fold:

  1. Invest more in expanding data collection in depth and breadth;
  2. Make the data transparent and accessible world-wide; and
  3. Encourage data-driven decision-making.

Here are just a few of the data-related projects that caught my eye:

Microfinance Information Exchange (MIX) and MasterCard Foundation—Just a few weeks ago, these two organizations launched a partnership “to improve visibility and access to information among microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Africa,” according to the press release. “The partnership with The MasterCard Foundation will enable MIX to broaden its baseline coverage of African microfinance providers, with the goal of improving access to information and providing a comprehensive view of the African microfinance landscape.  MIX will compile and aggregate information on the African microfinance industry to identify gaps, recommend solutions and highlight priority markets in order to scale up data coverage.”

World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—In November 2010, these organizations also inaugurated a new partnership to improve financial data collection on how the poor save, borrow and repay. The World Bank website reports that “through an $11 million, 10-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank’s Development Research Group will, for the first time, build a global database that allows researchers to measure and compare how individuals use bank accounts and other financial products – if they are available at all.” The new data will be collected through the Gallup World Poll.

Data.worldbank.org —As part of the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative launched in April 2010, this new website hosts an absolute wealth of statistics and indicators in a much more searchable, user-friendly format than what I remember using in grad school. The best part is that the World Development Indicators, which used to be password-protected, are now free and open. The site is accessible in four languages—English, Spanish, French and Arabic—and many indicators are also available to developers and others to create data applications and visualizations through an Application Programming Interface (API). There is more to the Open Data Initiative than just the site and you can read more here.

Advertisement for the Apps for Development Competition 
An off-shoot of the Open Data Initiative is the “Apps for Development Competition” sponsored by the World Bank. Through the contest, which closes to new submissions on January 10, participants will develop software applications related to one or more of the Millennium Development Goals and use at least
one datasets from data.worldbank.org. The goal is to “create innovative software applications that move us a step closer toward solving some of the world's most pressing problems.”

The list could go on and on so I’ll just leave you with a couple to check out on your own:

This is by no means an exhaustive list and I encourage you to submit your favorite data-related resources in the comments below.