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Developing data capacities for policy makers and diplomats

Published on 10 November 2018
Updated on 05 April 2024

In the debates surrounding the sustainable development goals (SDGs), a huge emphasis has been placed on having the right kind of data in working towards the global goals. We are encouraged to ‘measure what we treasure’ to achieve the 2030 development agenda and to have appropriate policies in place. This push for data is accompanied by an equally strong push for developing capacities in data and statistics. However, when it comes to capacity development, we need to go beyond data scientists and statisticians and include policy makers, diplomats, and those working in international organisations.

To discuss these needs, Diplo organised a panel at the UN World Data Forum onData & diplomats: capacity development for diplomats and policy-makers in the data age. The panel followed a multistakeholder approach and consisted of representatives from academia, government, civil society, and international organisations: Prof Maria Fasli (UNESCO Chair in Analytics and Data Science; Director at the Institute for Analytics and Data Science, University of Essex, UK), Mr Graham Nelson (Head of the Open Source Unit, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)), Ms Grace Mutung’u (Kenya ICT Support Network), and Mr Javier Teran (statistician from the Centre for Humanitarian Data, UN OCHA).(1)

Developing data capacities for policy makers and diplomats

While a detailed summary of the discussion is available on the Digital Watch observatory of the Geneva Internet Platform (for all sessions we reported from, see here), I use this space to highlight some of the main themes, as I perceived them, and to share some of my own thoughts. Four themes stand out in particular: (a) creating awareness, challenging policies, closing feedback loops, (b) targeting the right groups for capacity development, (c) questioning the push for more data, and (d) developing sustainable partnerships.

Creating awareness, challenging policies, closing feedback loops

Asked about the single most important capacity development need of policy makers and diplomats, panellists put awareness first – awareness of what data and statistics can and cannot do and awareness of the limitations of big data analysis. Nelson emphasised the potential of data analysis to challenge received wisdom and misperceptions. If integrated well into the policy-making process and understood well by policy-makers, data analysis has the potential to lead to better decisions. Dominant narratives and ingrained, but unhelpful assumptions can be challenged.

At the same time, a question from the audience reminded us that while data can lead to better policies, data can also be manipulated or misrepresented on purpose to justify policies that serve narrow interests. In both cases, we need to be aware that data is political.

In addition, Fasli reminded us that we should conceptualise the relation between data and policies not as a one-directional process, leading from data to policies. Rather,  a feedback loop should lead from policy to data. This enables policy makers to articulate clearly the data that may be needed and how statisticians and data scientists can best support the process. To achieve appropriate feedback, close cooperation and most importantly open and informed communication between statisticians and data scientists on the one hand and policy makers and diplomats on the other hand are needed.

Bringing different communities together?

Communication and collaboration between the very diverse communities of diplomats and policy makers on the one hand and statisticians and data scientists on the other hand requires capacity development. Good capacity development will enable communication and provide an understanding of the needs and world views of the ‘other’.

While diplomats and policy-makers often have excellent communication skills, they might lack the skills to assess how statistics and data science may be integrated into policy-making in a meaningful way. If they want to enter into fruitful dialogue with statisticians and data scientists, they need training to make such assessments. Conversely, it is clear that statisticians and data scientists also need to be trained to communicate with and understand policy makers.

In addition to targeted capacity development for the needs of the various communities, we also need to consider possibilities for joint capacity development. Rather than keeping these efforts separate, capacity development could bring both groups together to learn from each other to begin developing a common language.

(For a similar point, see the video summary of the UN World Data Forum by Muntung’u and myself):

YouTube player


Always more data?

We always see a strong push for more data, especially in discussions surrounding the SDGs. For example, it is vital to have dis-aggregated data to create a more fine-grained picture of  regions or groups of people that might otherwise be left behind. It is clear that appropriate data is needed to highlight both the progress towards the SDGs and areas where additional efforts are needed.

Yet, it is also time to question the underlying assumption that more data is always better. Mutung’u made this point by arguing that the circumstances and implications of this push for more data also needs to be investigated and acknowledged. Using her native Kenya as an example, she argued that the production of more data is often related to the pressure for governments to move more and more services online – without providing an alternative for people who do not want to participate or those who are excluded from participating due to lack of access or skills. Further, while data can be put to good use for implementing and accomplishing the SDGs, data is also a potential source of government control and mis-use.

It is important to acknowledge this point and to think about ways of addressing and mitigating these concerns. Admittedly, such considerations raise a complex set of questions and concerns. An important conclusion is that we should be careful about automatically equating more data with more progress and better policies.

The importance and power of partnerships

It is also crucial to look at putting existing data to better use. Here the importance of collaborations and partnerships needs to be stressed. Teran discussed a number of examples from the Centre for Humanitarian Data. For instance, datasets shared by partners on HDX, OCHA’s open platform for data sharing, have been used to build visualizations that increase the use and impact of data in humanitarian crises.The visualisations provided by the centre draw on a number of sources and emerges in collaboration with various stakeholders.

Data visualization developed by the Centre for Humanitarian Data in collaboration with partners https://data.humdata.org

Data visualization developed by the Centre for Humanitarian Data in collaboration with partners https://data.humdata.org


Based on the desire to put existing data to better uses, the Centre has developed a number of user-friendly data visualisations and other interactive tools and makes them publicly available for those working in the humanitarian field to make more informed decisions. This is a good reminder that carefully crafted partnerships are indispensable in creating such results.

While many more points emerged for further discussion from our panel at the UN World Data Forum, these four points are, for me, the essential ones to take forward for future capacity development in this area.

(1) Dr Jovan Kurbalija (Executive Secretary, UN High-Level Panel for Digital Cooperation) and Mr Rawl Prescott (Programme Assistant, CARICOM Secretariat) were unable to join. A previous blog by Kurbalija sets the scene for the discussion. And you can read Prescott’s input to the panel and his reflections on capacity development and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in his recent blog post.

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