New Discussion Paper: "Democratising the Data Revolution"

We’ve just launched a discussion paper on “Democratising the Data Revolution”, which is intended to advance thinking and action around civil society engagement with the data revolution.

We’d love to hear any thoughts on the paper, in particular on the discussion questions at the end, which I’m copying below for reference.

Questions for Discussion

We would like to catalyse discussion and gather input about how to increase civil society engagement around the data revolution and questions about what should be measured and how. To this end, we invite advocacy groups, journalists, public institutions, data users, researchers and others to respond to the following questions.

What Can Civil Society Groups Do?

  • What can civil society organisations do to engage with the data revolution?
  • What role might the nascent open data movement play in mediating between civil society organisations and public institutions around what should be measured?
  • What opportunities does the data revolution present for civil society organisations?
  • What are the best examples of democratic interventions to change, advocate or create new forms of measurement (both present and past)?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to greater civil society engagement with the data revolution? How might these be addressed?
  • Which kinds of transnational challenges and issues (e.g. climate change, tax base erosion) are currently inadequately dealt with by national data infrastructures?
  • What areas might new kinds of measurement make the biggest difference, and how?
  • What factors are most important in ensuring that data leads to action?
  • What might civil society groups do to flag potential risks and unwanted consequences of data infrastructures as well as their benefits?

What Can Public Institutions Do?

  • What can public institutions do to better understand the interests and priorities of civil society organisations around what should be measured?
  • Are there examples of where open data initiatives have facilitated significant changes to existing datasets, or the creation of new kinds of datasets?
  • Which kinds of mechanisms might be most effective in understanding and responding to the interests of civil society organisations around what is measured and how?
  • What are the biggest obstacles to public institutions responding more effectively to the data needs and interests of civil society groups? How might these be addressed?


Good to see this conversation being sparked more.

Some very quick initial reactions:

  • The examples under ‘the role of the open data movement’ are very dataset centric. I wonder if democratising the data revolution involves staking a step back from here, and finding out how to have the conversation about knowledge, information and evidence for policy at a more thematic level.

E.g. finding spaces that connect the policy (rather than data staff) in public institutions, and the policy people in civil society, with conversations about data requirements - and only then moving into the data-details. In other words, pushing for more of a critical conversation of data as part of talking about environment, health, welfare policy etc.

  • As far as I understand, ODUG is also defunct/not active at present, so may not be a great example to major on;

  • There is an important contextual issue to think about here: much of the data revolution debate is also about using big data and real-time data from private firms to shape policy. Establishing a principle that policy should not be made on data that can’t be shared with citizens in some form (either proactively or reactively), and that it should always be possible for government to account for policy outcomes from its data, may be important. Otherwise we risk a situation in which the data on which policy is made is going to be increasingly proprietary.


The UN Data Revolution report that you refer to actually talks about two quite distinct revolutions: the data revolution that you quote, and a data revolution for sustainable development. Globalisation may have made the world smaller but it hasn’t removed the huge resource (and technological) divide between developed and developing countries.The Africa Data Consensus defines the data revolution as

A profound shift in the way that data is harnessed to impact on development decision-making, with a particular emphasis on building a culture of usage. The process of embracing a wide range of data communities and diverse range of data sources, tools, and innovative technologies, to provide disaggregated data for decision-making, service delivery and citizen engagement; and information for Africa to own its narrative.

The Consensus talks of building an ecosystem -

Multiple data communities, all types of data (old and new), institutions, laws and policy frameworks, and innovative technologies and tools, interacting to achieve the data revolution.

This poses challenges for both public institutions and civil society. Governments need to commit to the opening and broadening of official statistics to formally recognise credible data from civil society, academia and the private sector, Civil society in turn needs to partner with government in a common effort to meet the information needs of decision-makers at both national and local level.


To run with the photography analogy mentioned in the paper, as Lewis Hine said, “While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.” Applies to data.

For the civil society, the democratising potential of data revolution will only materialize if it becomes a tool in the fight for social justice – otherwise it becomes “data for data’s sake,” or the more trendy “data viz for data viz’s sake”. It would be good not to take data as this neutral information that exists in vacuum. It needs to be brought down to earth and tied with the social/political problem it’s trying to solve in all it’s complexity.

As Bill pointed out, there is a technological and wealth divide between the developed and the developing world. I would only add that the divide is also political, in terms of power, and in terms of access to data/information – thinking of a global database like climate change models, or offshore banking. The term “civil society” is too diverse to be meaningful at a particular country, let alone globally, because of the diversity of interest those belonging to it carry.


Thanks for the interesting paper. A few thoughts (primarily based on my interest in data on land, but probably relevant to other types of data):

  • Very interesting points regarding the potential to affect what is measured. I’d be very interested to know what civil society groups would like to know about land that isn’t currently being measured.

  • The data revolution has huge potential for civil society organisations. (1) It will put them on a more even playing field with the private sector, given that it will reduce the cost of accessing information, (2) It will encourage innovation and social entrepreneurship, (3) it may give civil society groups more ammunition with which to force social change. First in terms of finding evidence to back up their advocacy, and second because more access to data means more public awareness of problems with society.

  • One of the biggest obstacles to civil society groups benefitting from the data revolution is where there are no accessible platforms for accessing the data. This can be addressed by identifying what data civil society groups need, and working with developers to ensure they are integrated in new products.

  • Public institutions should consult not just with existing data users, but also with civil society groups who could benefit from data but currently lack the resources/ skills to access it. This should include consulting with small organisations and practitioners, so as to find out how to get the data to those who need it most on the ground. It shouldn’t be assumed that they will contact institutions, and they may not even be aware of how much the data could help them. The institutions should seek them out proactively (e.g. by commissioning research into their data needs).

A couple of blogs that my organisation, Shared Assets, wrote on democratising access to land data:

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I think this is initiative is needed, and it’s a good set of questions to start with designing “participatory data infrastructure.” I wrote an enthusiastic response on my blog.

I can suggest a couple of resources on existing ideas which may be helpful:

  • Participatory technology assessment.
    • There’s 2010 report by Richard Sclove, which is excellent but quite U.S.-focused. See the link in my blog post.
    • This 2004 report by TA-SWISS is focused on technology assessment in Europe, including participatory TA.
    • Real-time technology assessment by Guston & Sarewitz (2002). doi:10.1016/S0160-791X(01)00047-1
  • Participatory design – there has been work on participatory design of software and information systems, but not yet infrastructures.