Interview with Gayan Peiris, Digital Strategist of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign, on the importance of using global data sources wisely to identify the needs of local communities and showcase ‘real’ progress made.
Please tell me a little bit about your background and how you became a Digital Strategist for the United Nations.
I am from Sri Lanka and studied Information Technology. I started my career in private sector as a software engineer for a telecommunications company in my home country where I was managing SMS-based value-added services. I then moved to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka where I initially managed the Asia-Pacific regional web portal. In 2009, I joined the knowledge management team of the UNDP in New York City. I helped promote the culture of ‘working-out-loud’ and real-time reporting to enable staff globally to collaborate on projects. I was also part of the team that expanded UNDP’s Knowledge management platform to have open public online consultations. This allowed us to bring together large numbers of participants to feed into international policy discussions. The Rio+20 Sustainable Development Dialogues in 2012 were the first of this kind. We had online consultations in different thematic areas leading upto the conference. The success of the Rio+20 Dialogues led to calls for it to be replicated for the Post2015 consultation process, World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat3.
Please tell me about the My World 2015 Survey.
With the post-2015 consultation process, we made a decision to expand this further by capturing people’s voices, priorities and views, so that global leaders can be informed as they begin the process of defining the new development agenda. We worked with experts and academics to create a global survey – the MYWorld 2015 Survey – that presented a voting process for people across the globe on 16 priority topics that mattered to them the most. I was managing the technical aspects and the entire ecosystem of the survey. We reached out to 10 million people out of which ‘only’ 2 million responses came through the online method. We developed offline strategies to reach areas that are usually very difficult to reach. In countries where access to online survey was difficult, we worked with a partner in the country to develop a local My World 2015 site to collect responses and then synced it back into the master survey. We also created an offline version of the survey for which we worked with partners, especially civil society organizations, and volunteers, that went from door to door asking people about their priorities. It was like a mini election in certain countries where volunteers collected the responses on a paper template, then into Excel, and then uploaded back into the platform. In Nigeria, for example, we got over 2 Million votes through this process. This was a very inclusive solution by which we could even reach people that did not have an internet connection or cell phones, meaning the poorest of the poor. The survey presented them with an opportunity to have a dialogue with the UN on what matters to them the most. Moreover, we created an entire ecosystem for the survey collaborating with, for example, telecommunication providers that distributed the survey via SMS and customer service organizations that asked people about their opinion over the phone. We also created a mobile app to get data into the system. This created a massive partner network as well. For example, we worked with Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. Each partner was given a partner ID. They shared the survey URL with their partner ID on their social media and web pages and we gave them high-level visibility. We were also checking the validity of data and replications. Since the survey is completely anonymous (we don’t record any personal information), we could open it up so that anyone can access, analyze, and visualize data. This was very important as the organization did not want to tell people what issues are the most important. It wanted to enable people to identify these topics themselves to empower them. The UN simply organized the survey, provided people with open data, and gave them the tools to analyze it. Yet, we also developed visualizations that were shown to Heads of States at key moments, including the General Assembly. They were very interested in this information as it is perception data.
What are the major advantages of using data and what are the risks of investing so much in data analysis?
People really have been collecting data for a very long time. It is just access to data that was the problem. Governments had data but sometimes it was not accessible. In some places there were data sources of which we did not even think as relevant until we had access to it. For example, electricity consumption in a city is a pretty accurate indicator of poverty. So, this data was always available somewhere on paper or on a hard drive, but we did not have access to that information. To effectively analyze development contexts using data, one needs to triangulate different data sources. I can talk about 3 kinds of data you need to look at. First, the statistical information, I’d like to call it ‘hard data’. Then, the proxy information, like satellite data, electricity and consumption data, like the data about people buying motorbikes in Indonesia. The third form of data is perception data, like the one my team at UN Sustainable Development Action Campaign (UN SDG Campaign) collecting via MyWorld Survey. If I may take an example, the ‘hard data’ tells you that the government has implemented an education policy. Then there will be some proxy information supporting this. Yet, impact is hard to show immediately as it may take up to 10 years to measure statistically. Yet, perception on the policy is something you can measure immediately. We are therefore very keen on perception data. We are trying to do the MyWorld surveys every year so you can see progress. We therefore also ask: do you think the situation remained the same, did it get better or did it get worse? Overall, what I have seen is that people talk about data a lot. Everyone is talking about it. Everyone is talking about artificial intelligence as well. I am convinced that analyzing data is important BUT conveying the right story to the right people is what matters the most and what is lacking. When we show visualizations to Heads of States, for example, we should understand what they are looking for. When we analyze climate data, for example, if we are visualizing it in a format that people don’t understand then there is no point even in analyzing it at all. People therefore need to really know their audience when analyzing data and they also need to know how to tell stories with this data using visualizations. What we have therefore done recently is open up data challenges for the data science community. We are very specifically telling them that we are NOT interested in seeing fancy graphs, we are interested in seeing stories. Overall, the storytelling aspect is still lacking though. First, we were saying we have no data, then we were saying we have data but we do not know how to analyze it, now we have enough data, computing power and scientists, so this excuse is not valid. Therefore, now it is about time to find those sweet spots, those hidden stories that you can communicate back to your audience.
As for the downside data, it is what I just mentioned: If you don’t know how to find stories in data that could make a real impact, the whole effort of analyzing data is in vain.
How have you been partnering with the private sector in collecting data?
With the new survey, MyWorld 2030, we are seeing more and more private sector entities being interested in this type of data because it represents a way to measure what really matters to people. It shows threats and opportunities for companies when they are designing their programs for certain countries and cities.
Does the private sector also use the data to showcase that they contribute to the SDGs?
Yes, they partner with us mainly because this data can give them insights into emerging markets and opportunities and be inclusive when they design their business strategies.
Do you see the private sector include people with very little income more actively into their project as a result of the usage of the SDG campaign data or by partnering with you?
Yes, we see more and more local level organizations getting involved because, first of all, they want to tell the world what the priorities of their communities are. They want to tell their municipalities, and their governments. Also, a majority of data collection happens offline when partners go and talk to people and discover what really matters to them. The informal data collection is really a crucial point. For example, I recently learned from a colleague that in his country that data shows that the government has supplied people with electricity to a certain village. So, as far as the government is concerned, the story seems to be successful. From a statistical point of view this is the end of the story. However, satellite data tells a different story. It shows that this cannot be because at night there are no lights visible. Therefore, offline data collection was conducted that brought to the surface that electricity was indeed supplied by the government but only to the master tower. From there it was not supplied to local villages. So, without proxy information, this would not have been found out. This is why it is important to open up government data and triangulate it. You cannot tell a story by just using the statistics. It has to be combined with proxy data and real peoples’ perception data as well.
How can people find that proxy data?
More and more satellite companies are opening up their data, and so do other private sector organizations. So, when you open up data challenges for data scientists and for the visualization community, they find these interesting ways to triangulate data sources because they know how to find these stories in the data. So, you don’t just open data you basically open up challenges for people to come in and identify these alternate sources and stories.
As an inclusive business owner wanting to use the MyWorld Survey data, what would be the steps that I needed to take?
There are several ways you can get involved. One is of course, to become a partner, and when you become a partner we empower you and we provide you with a set of tools that you can test in the field to do your own survey, do your campaign, and become a SDG Campaigner. Even as an individual you can become a partner. We will then open up certain challenges for you; for example, you need to bring us at least 10 percent of responses from your community, depending on the size of your community. By doing so, you immediately become connected, you are listening to others and you are learning from fellow campaigners about their experiences and the stories they identified. The other way is getting our data which is publically available and seeing the concerns in your community. We get certain demographic information such as gender, education level and city as well. There you can find out what matters to people most and you can then try to address those problems. You will see, for example, infrastructure or healthcare, or water, or other issues that are problems in certain areas and you can then come up with innovative ideas on how to fix them. Thirdly, we can help you visualize the data effectively. We have access to the visualization community. So, if you are searching for something specific, you can tell us and we can inform the visualization community about your challenge. Finally, we can connect you with partners from our global network that are working on similar issues in your country or community.
Thank you for the interview.
Here are further links that might be interesting:
This blog is a part of the November 2017 series on data for inclusive business. Read the full series for insights on how the data revolution could affect inclusive business. Will it bring an end to the uncertainty of business in Base of Pyramid markets? Can it straddle the development-business divide? Will the data drive spurred by the Sustainable Development Goals be useful to inclusive business?