Earlier blogs in this series have talked about the post-2015 development agenda and the role that science could play within it.

A couple of weeks ago, the Royal Society kindly hosted an expert briefing with DFID around the subject of ‘data for development’, drawing upon the High Level Panel on the post-2015 development agenda’s call for a ‘data revolution’. Questions such as: ‘What should this look like?’, ‘Are there key research and capacity-building challenges which need to be overcome to maximise the potential of such a revolution?’ and ‘What skills and systems do we need to deliver this?’ were all debated by meeting participants.

Participants broadly agreed that there is huge potential from both ‘big’ and ‘open’ data as well as new and emerging technologies to help deliver enhanced accountability and transparency, improved service delivery and to stimulate innovation and economic growth.  There is also the potential to do science in new and innovative ways, to test the reproducibility of research findings and to speed up the process of scientific discovery as outlined in the Royal Society’s 2012 ‘Science as an Open Enterprise’ report.

However, it is important to recognise that a ‘data revolution’ is not a silver bullet and that a lot of the openness agenda is currently being driven on faith. Studies such as the recent McKinsey report which attempts to estimate the potential economic value of open data across seven domains are far too rare and there is a need for stronger evidence of the economic and social impacts of such investments.

It will also be essential to link ‘data for development’ research with ongoing policy processes, practical policy interventions and high level champions to ensure we get maximum impact from these investments. Not all barriers are due to data and generating political will and a culture in which people act on data is also fundamental.

It is not enough to just increase the accessibility to and availability of data.  Understanding the data requirements of potential users is essential as well as getting a better idea of how they are using it, whether it to be to access market price information for their produce, identify ownership of land or to ‘follow the money’ in delivery of promised goods and services .  We also need to ensure that no-one is left behind and that the potential of a ‘digital divide’ is minimised.

DFID-backed initiatives such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the new Development Tracker are attempting to show through open data how UK aid is spent in developing countries.  We are also identifying sectoral investments such as the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition Initiative (GODAN) and the Mobile Enabled Community Services programme which is enhancing access to basic energy and water services in under-served communities. Nevertheless, we can do much more.

However, this is not all about external investments.  To truly maximise the potential impact of any data revolution there is a need to both practice what we preach and to enhance the awareness and skills of civil servants in these areas.  The Civil Service Reform Plan has called for precisely this, acknowledging that digital skills are lacking in an organisation committed to becoming Digital by Default and that we need to be more ‘unified, open and accountable’.

We will be continuing to debate many of these issues raised over the coming months and look forward to engaging with many potential revolutionaries in the lead up to 2015!