Africa's Data Revolution...?

There is nowhere in the world more data-challenged than sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Over the last decade, several SSA countries have experienced significant development, and quite a few economics have successfully transitioned from low to middle-income status (e.g. Senegal, Ghana, Kenya). Others however, have not done as well. Nigeria for example, hailed as the largest economy in Africa less than two years ago, is currently experiencing the most severe recession in its recent history. The region is awash with activity, and challenges notwithstanding, sub-Saharan Africa is poised for the greatest wave of positive change it has seen in all of its history. Accurate indices of demography, development and prosperity have never been more important; not just as quantitative determinants of growth, but for estimations of poverty and inequality.  

From 1990 to 2009, only one sub-Saharan African nation had data on all 12 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) indicators, and in other instances where data was available it was often questionable and unreliable. In January of this year, The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect. Focusing on key areas including poverty alleviation, democratic governance and peacebuilding, climate change and disaster risk, and economic inequality, the SDGs are built to accelerate progress already achieved under the MDGs, and serve as a guide for national development strategy for the next 15 years, across 170 countries and territories. Laudable as the plan is, it begs the question of how progress towards the goals will be measured in SSA, especially considering the fact that statistical capacity in the region has not significantly improved since the MDGs. The figures below provide statistical capacity scores in SSA for 2013 and 2015 (roll over maps to see scores by country).

Viz by Big Data for Africa. Data Source; World Bank AGI Data Portal. 

Open data initiatives such as the African Development Bank’s Open Data for Africa platform and the World Bank’s Open Data Portal have created pathways towards easier access to a broad variety of statistical data for all 54 African nations. However, open data portals are not enough to mitigate the region’s data challenges, especially given the unavailability of the actual data necessary to populate these open data platforms.

In a recent initiative led by the Center for Global Development and the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), an effort was made to explore the challenges surrounding data in sub-Saharan Africa. The results revealed that the greatest challenges evolve not out of a lack of technical capacity, but as a result of political economy and systemic challenges including:

  • A lack of independence among national statistics offices (NSOs)
  • Misaligned incentives between funders and producers of statistics
  • Dominance of donor priorities over national, and
  • Deliberate, consistent efforts to preclude public access to data.

The data challenge in sub-Saharan Africa is not just about providing portals and platforms and repositories for the old data that is available. It is actually more about generating new, relevant data that is not restricted by the requirements of donors and funding agencies, improving data collection practices, and enhancing the accessibility of stakeholders to reliable and timely data on Africa.

Meeting this data challenge will require innovations that extend far beyond traditional data collection methodologies. It will require stakeholders to harness the power of technology and data sources previously unavailable in the region.  It will require governments to fund more data collection efforts, and fund different TYPES of data collection efforts. It will require governments to coordinate with donors, civil society and private actors. It will require all stakeholders in Africa's data future to begin to experiment with new ways of mining, analyzing and disseminating data, and truly begin to invest in not just the idea, but the reality of a data revolution in Africa.