Data and power

So you mention there are a lot of power hierarchies that play into the decisions that actually get made. Are you trying to use the data to convince these power hierarchies to (sometimes) make decisions they wouldn’t normally, because it doesn’t directly benefit ‘their’ community, but someone else’s?

Or is it more that the data will show where more effort needs to be spent, and then you know that you have target areas and try to fight for them all equally, even though you know in advance that some initiatives are more likely to succeed simply because they have the power in government, whereas others don’t?

(Thanks to Lewis Kitchen for firing me this question.)

I’d say there’s two things going on here. The first is with respect to the politicization of these decisions – yes, it’s going to happen. It happens in Canada, it happens everywhere there’s an incentive for government to try to curry favour with a population – everywhere with an effective government (democratic or not), I’d say. This is obviously not going to lead to a distribution of services and resources in a cost effective manner. Good data management will lead to good monitoring, and more accountable government, by minimizing opportunity for and maybe exposing excessive political influence when it happens.

District governments develop Medium Term Development Plans every four years and Annual Action Plans… well, annually. Currently, these plans aren’t great. My guess is that they’re seen as one more step along the way to securing funding, one more report to be filled out. You create a plan, you check the box, send it on its way, and never look at it again. If folks writing the plans are viewing it this way, there’s not a huge incentive to make sure it’s a good plan. As a result, a lot of these plans don’t get put into practice. I’ve heard that about 25% of an Annual Action Plan being implemented is typical, and my guess is that this 25% is the quarter that would be implemented plan or no plan.

That means that if you’re a decision-maker in the District trying to decide where to allocate resources, you have a few options. You can check the plan (knowing that it was put together somewhat half-hazard, based on data you don’t necessarily trust), or you can just do your job and make a decision. Maybe you have a brother a few towns over. You know his bore-hole broke two years ago, so you give him the borehole. You might call this corruption – he’s giving resources along family lines! Outrageous! But what else do you do, if you don’t have data? If you don’t even know the community one over from that has never even had a borehole, or has far higher rates of water-borne illness?

To answer the question, it’s both. Evidence based decision making will put pressure on people to make the best decisions, as (hopefully) any other decision will run counter to black and white data, and be that much harder to justify. Equally though, the decision is going to enable good decision making that is otherwise just not possible. It’s trying to break that cycle, where a lack of data means decisions aren’t based on data, which undermines the need for and value of data.

Wait, but what if… (submit a question below!)

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2 Responses to Data and power

  1. Belinda says:

    Great post! The whole data collecting struggle really speaks to me as a grad student. Obtaining good data is a constant problem in everything that requires data, especially when a system is super complex. The more I do research, the more I realize that a lot of data, as objective as it seems, appears more “grey” than black and white. Data interpretation is like an art, especially when there is a lot of scatter or if it is a system that we don’t really understand (e.g. for me – interaction of trace contaminants in leachate). Furthermore, a lot of times the data quality (e.g. having enough samples, removing biases, etc.) is very hard to achieve. Sometimes, having bad data is worse than having no data at all. How much confidence do you have that the additional data coming in will have adequate QA/QC? Also, how do you think the issue of “grey data” QA/QC will affect decision-making? Another thing I’m curious about are what differences and similarities do you see in how decision-making is done in Canada versus Ghana?

  2. Tom Curran says:

    Great post, Dan! It was very exciting to hear one of the African delegates at conference speak about data on boreholes. It has enabled him to provide NGOs with accurate data to optimize well placement and avoid overlap, whereas before he felt that he was not able to help these organizations very much even if they did try to work with him, as he was unsure of where all the boreholes were.

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