Nowadays, we live in a world where data is readily available and in huge quantities…
Twenty years ago it would have been unimaginable to have access to the data we have today. Thanks to mobile phones, the internet and the general development of technology, data has become a part of our everyday lives in which we leave a digital trail mapped out by our devices, informing advertisers and other invested parties – including ourselves- of our movements, likes and dislikes and much much more.
In the context of development, data may have been used twenty years ago, but surveys were filled out by hand, information filed on paper and analysis of large numbers would therefore take time to sort through and reorganize. Thanks to software such as KoBo, data collection can be done in challenging circumstances such as Syria and information reported back to offices thousands of miles away rapidly.
So how can this be useful in such an environment as Syria?
Firstly, there’s speed and the consequences of fast information. The speed at which data can now be collected and sorted is so fast, assessments of volatile situations can be carried out in a way that makes information that might have almost been irrelevant before quite vital now. For example, ACU’s recent live map (https://www.acu-sy.org/en/roads-and-border-crossings-status-interactive-map/) addition to their website allows people to access regularly updated information on road access and roadblocks in Syria. Maps of roads in the past would not have been useful in such a changeable context, in which almost as soon as the ink has dried, the situation has changed. To know that a data tool is providing regular updates makes such information relevant once again.
Another way in which data helps the development community in such an environment is in its’ accuracy and specificity. Well designed surveys and data tools input information based on location, time and gender, for example, which once disaggregated can provide useful comparisons during project development for communities. Hani Babeli, Statistician and Operations Manager for Trust, states ‘data is an essential way to get accurate information that can inform projects. For example, when we conduct Needs Assessments, we sometimes conduct surveys with thousands of people, this quantity provides a type of data quality not possible in other types of research.
So data is faster and data is bigger, but is data better?
This particular debate is ongoing, but it might be said that data is only as good as the person analysing it. When I started at Trust, data analysis was a new and mysterious concept – something I had never taken the time to understand and most of my previous research had been qualitative . Now however, I watch the colleagues who are training me in data analysis find comparisons in spreadsheets I wouldn’t have noticed or make hypotheses based on findings that wouldn’t have been thinkable with other forms of qualitative information. They also present it in imaginative ways, making data visual and easier to understand. Although data is obviously a vital part of the process, so is the skill of the person looking at it. There is therefore a very human side to data.
Whilst data continues to contribute to the development sector however, I still believe that datasets have their limits. In crises like Syria, understanding a community is just as important as understanding the numbers that represent it. You might have a map and official documents that tell you where a small village is for example, but in some cases within communities’ villages are known by different names. Unless you interact with people, it is unlikely you will understand this. When overpopulation and depopulation happens in a country with constant displacement, people who are living that reality will be your most accurate source of information on these issues. You will never be able to serve that community adequately without an understanding of the way a community is functioning in reality.
So instead of suggesting that data replaces this very human and local understanding of environments, I propose that they should continue to work together. Data can get bigger and faster, so maybe humans should invest more in the nuances of the small and slow.
Kelly O’Donovan is a British national based in Gaziantep, Turkey and is Programmes Support Officer for Trust. Kelly holds an MA in Media and Development from SOAS, University of London. Her academic research focuses on the relationship between the media and humanitarian agencies in the MENA and sub-Saharan African regions. At Trust, she assists the project team with all written reports, research projects and policy creation and also works on documentation design.