Joining Forces to Tap the Potential
of Data for Development

December 4, 2019
Marie-Helen Cymorek

What do big data sources like satellite imagery or mobile phone records bring to the table when it comes to sustainable development? Are innovative techniques like machine learning also applicable to our very own data treasure at GIZ - and what kinds of insights can we expect?

Does the combination of data science and regional expertise provide us with new answers to persistently challenging development questions? These are some of the questions the GIZ Data Lab has endeavored to answer since its founding in 2019. Through several targeted experiments, we aimed to deliver a development-focused “reality-check” using non-traditional data sources, creative methodologies, and an outside-the-box approach to traditional concepts.

In just over six months, we successfully established a strong network of innovative stakeholders around the globe. Together with experts like Prof. Dr. Danielle Wood (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Lejla Sadiku (UNDP), Derval Usher (Pulse Lab Jakarta), Frederic Pivetta (Dalberg Data Insights), and Prof. Dr. Richard Heeks (University of Manchester), we “Joined Forces to Tap the Potential of Data for Development.”

Our first conference, held in August of 2019 at GIZ in Eschborn, Germany, presented the preliminary results of our partnerships to a broader audience. Watch some of the highlights below:

Here are four key takeaways from our work regarding the effective use of data for development:

From Lejla Sadiku:

An increasing number of institutions face a widening gap between emerging realities (like growing populations, climate change, and rapid digitalization) and their existing practices. This gap is expected to grow exponentially until a major rethink of our development practices takes place. Until now, data has always been viewed as a solution in itself. It is our responsibility to create more awareness of its place within project programming. The GIZ Data Lab and UNDP Accelerator Labs are collaborating to apply big data methods in the identification of positive deviants and lead user innovations, representing a significant and necessary organizational shift.

From Richard Heeks:

In the last few years, the explosion of digital technology has been accompanied by an equal explosion of data for development. This represents an amazing opportunity for us, as it is extremely important to leverage collaboration in the field of data for development. We need data scientists and data owners working together with social scientists and policymakers who make data-based decisions and put them into practice. Our project on Big Data-based Positive Deviants follows this kind of approach. Essentially, we are scanning big data streams to find those individuals, organizations or projects in development that are significantly outperforming their peers. We would like to understand why and how they are outperforming others and then disseminate this local knowledge.

From Frederic Pivetta:

Data is extremely important for us, as it increases the validity of the decisions we make. More data means that we can be more accurate in measuring the impact of our actions and better able to hold people accountable for both their behavior and decision making. Today, nearly every modern organization collects data of various forms and sizes. In the context of global development, such data treasures hold great potential for initiating a fundamental change in our perspective and methodology. Our experimental approach shows that we are still in the process of raising awareness about the value of intra-organizational data and that we need to start encouraging a forward-looking data strategy right away. In addition, we’ve seen that consistent data governance is essential to making the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning even more feasible for our work.

From Danielle Wood:

There are many important changes happening in this century that are going to change the way development professionals and their local colleagues use data in their work. Whether it is big data, blockchain, or remote sensing,  the integration of various data resources, techniques and methodologies to pursue Sustainable Development Goals is unique. Through the combination of social, data, and computer sciences we constantly seek to answer questions about our environment from a human point of view. The answers become more readily available when we measure effects with a great range of data tools.