The UN’s technocratic answer to the ‘data revolution’


Alternative title: Have bureaucracy, will organize meetings: The UN’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution

It started with casual Twitter feed browsing on Sunday and a short exchange of tweets between Zara Rahman and me: 

So I had a closer look at the UNs press release and to be honest, afterwards questions about gender distribution or the ‘North-South’ divide did not seem to be the most pressing ones.
While I have absolutely no doubt about the technological and technical expertise of the group members, I wonder why the UN went for the most conservative, most quantitative, most statistics-driven approach to the ‘data revolution’ to fulfill its ambitious goal:

The Group is also expected to assess new opportunities linked to innovation, technical progress and the surge of new public and private data providers to support and complement conventional statistical systems and strengthen accountability at the global, regional and national level.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand the nature of UN expert groups and I am also fully aware that rocking any kind of boat is usually not linked to the UN system, but I have some doubts that ‘innovation’ is really the term that comes to mind when going through the bios of the group members: Lots of present and former international civil servants, lots of senior statisticians with a little sprinkle of academia (economics, statistics & engineering, of course), civil society (Twaweza from Tanzania and Ushahidi) and large corporations (Baidu, Orange).

I am also aware that an advisory group can never capture the full spectrum of the ‘data revolution’, but I am a bit disappointed about all the blind spots: Qualitative research maybe? Anything from sociology to anthropology? Digital humanities, anybody?! And what about the communications aspect of ‘data’ and the ‘data revolution’? Data journalists, C4D people, maybe? Or, to be quite daring, what about an artist or an expert on data visualization, linked to the communications aspect? Or innovative companies that are a bit smaller than Orange or Baidu, Topys, for example which really supported our recent research project on Twitter and global policy summits?
I am sure you can think of many other suitable candidates and organizations from critical civil society to open data/access advocates.

In the end, the UN seems to have chosen a technocratic route-not entirely surprisingly, but hopefully not an indication that ‘data’ is on its way to become the next ‘box ticked’ next to ‘gender’ or ‘participation’…


 

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