Using data as a tool of Arab development

Governments in Gulf countries seem to be slowly joining the effort to collect, mine and disseminate data.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Revolutionising data. Participants at Visualise 2030. (ADP)
Revolutionising data. Participants at Visualise 2030. (ADP)

The attention increasingly paid to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals has led many governments to collect data to interpret and work towards national development.

That’s where the Arab Development Portal (ADP) comes in. It’s an initiative of the coordination of Arab, national and regional development institutions, the Islamic Development Bank and the OPEC Fund for International Development, in collaboration with the UN Development Programme. Its Visualise 2030 initiative is meant to encourage the collection, visualisation and consumption of data by young Arabs in support of informed public debate about development and other important issues.

In the second year since the introduction of Visualise 2030, the ADP has broken the monopoly on data enjoyed by a small group of well-connected technical experts. It is building a constituency of data-consumers of diverse backgrounds, including journalists, civil society activists, entrepreneurs, academics and development practitioners.

Visualise 2030 gathered 50 young people from across the region to collect and analyse data on specific issues, as linked with specific sustainable development goals.

Iraqi Mohammed Ammar Al Qassim is a Visualise 2030 “initiative ambassador” — someone who is spreading the word about the importance of data in their country. Qassim said he feels deeply about his task. “Without data,” he said, “you would be walking blind, which is what we are doing right now in the Arab world.”

It’s not as if the Arab world has no data but it is not easy for the average citizen to access. There are 232 global indicators for the monitoring of 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Mapping by the ADP indicates that Arab countries can report on average only 38% of those indicators. That’s 7% below that of a developed country, such as the United Kingdom. ADP mapping also shows that only ten Arab countries have an online database linked to their national statistical offices.

“The remaining data continue to be published in the form of static PDF yearbooks or excel sheets,” said Farah Choucair, ADP project manager. “Hence, transposing that paper-based data using our online system is a painstaking exercise.”

The statistics agencies of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt have decided to support ADP’s task of making the data more technology-friendly, she said.

To include MENA citizens in the development debate, people need to be able to access real data in a way they can understand. The difficulty of accessing data has fuelled the general perception that there is not enough data or that it is deliberately not made available by governments. In some cases, this has led to mistrust of government.

Choucair said the region needs “more disaggregated data by sex, age, income group and a much wider variety of indicators.” That’s the only way to create an accurate picture of socioeconomic conditions, she added.

“So far, the ADP covers 5,000 indicators on 14 themes available on our website,” Choucair said. The indicators include age and gender groups, consumer spending and subsidies. The broad themes are water and food security, information and communication technology, health, banking and finance.

Academics in the region are also seeking more data. Ilhem Allagui, associate professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, said data can help governments “improve public service; increase access to information for customers; improve data analysis; ensure transparency, attenuate technological risks, improve international competitiveness and improve human development and economic growth.” All of this would enhance “stability and sustainability,” Allagui added.

This is particularly important in conflict-affected areas. Visualise 2030 participant Kanan Salloum’s work on Data4Syria, an international project, was meant to assess the state of the country’s economy after years of conflict.

Salloum said: “We benefited from the available data on the micro and macroeconomics of Syria’s economy. Not only were we able to understand where the big losses were but also conduct statistical predictive studies to discover possible scenarios for rebuilding the country.”

Collecting data, analysing it and writing a narrative around it will help the region in another crucial way, too. Mohanned Al Sheikh, a Visualise 2030 participant from Yemen, said making complex data accessible to ordinary people is important if they are to be included in public debates. “I hope that using static and motion designs to convey informative data would open people’s hearts, so that they can change their countries,” he said.

Palestinian data science expert Abed Khooli admitted that the data culture in the region is still in its infancy because it needs “a culture of openness and a culture of leadership and technical capacity. Storage infrastructure can be purchased but local expertise, passion and leadership cannot.”

Governments in Gulf countries seem to be slowly joining the effort to collect, mine and disseminate data. The region has a smart city such as Dubai and some e-services are available to residents of the United Arab Emirates. Qatari e-portal Hukoomi allows access to information from various government departments.

It’s a start but the region needs to go much further, much faster if data are to be used as a tool of and for social change.