Image by Chris Morgan, Ramani Huria Project, Open Map Development Tanzania
  • Blog
  • 21 October 2021

The role of communities in delivering data to leave no one behind

Ensuring everyone’s voice is heard means collecting new data via new processes. We must invest in and use citizen- and community-generated data from CSOs.


Harpinder Collacott, Annie Namala, Javier Carranza Tresoldi

The third UN World Data Forum in Bern this year was a successful example of how to run a hybrid meeting. Technology worked well and people were connected from around the world while others met safely under one roof. There was one missing piece, however. The voices of people who are least likely to be counted in official data, the most marginalised people in society, continue to be absent from many of the conversations.

Inclusive data requires inclusive dialogue

As a data community we recognise that we must bring the voices of communities to life in the road to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But are we really creating the platform for self-determination within data processes that is needed? For example, despite commitments to build local data eco-systems, the extractive nature of data collection by global agencies rang loud on many of the panels. There is much to be done if we are to achieve the ambitions set at the first UN World Data Forum in Cape Town in 2017.

Still, it is encouraging to see the dialogue on data that can support no one being left behind progressing. The promise to ‘leave no one behind’ is a critical principle of the SDGs. It marked a shift when world leaders agreed to replace the framework of ‘progressive achievement of rights and development’ to ensure rights and development that put the people furthest behind first.

In this context, it is now widely recognised that marginalised communities do not figure in the available national-level datasets. Filling data gaps doesn’t just mean disaggregating the data we have, it many cases it means collecting new data via new processes. It means we must look to and invest in citizen- and community-generated data from civil society organisations (CSOs) who represent marginalised communities and can reach them, to understand if we are on track to realise the SDGs and deliver on the principle of leaving no one behind.

Learning from community-based data collection initiatives

With many new community data initiatives launched in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic going deep into communities to understand how it impacted them, we were keen to hear what we could learn. So, in partnership with the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, we brought together partners at the World Data Forum to learn more about the role of community-generated data in this context and what needs to happen next to keep making progress. We focused on three countries from three continents: Colombia, India and Uganda.

The Indian organisation Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (do not break your promises) showcased its 100 Hotspots research on socially excluded communities and the community-based monitoring done during the pandemic jointly with UNICEF India. This captured the reality of socioeconomically marginalised and vulnerable families from 12 districts around the country. The work resulted in the Government of India wanting to expand community-based monitoring due to both the usefulness of the data generated and its potential in a humanitarian crisis. These studies revealed the need for investment and training for CSOs to do this sort of work with communities. The investment made in the capacity building of the CSO had a direct correlation with the quality of the data generated.

GeoCensos from Colombia presented similar findings. They articulated how training communities to map their own localities improved census data in local areas of El Salvador. Establishing unique partnerships showed what was possible with open data generated through local communities. Intersectional challenges of gender, age, disability, sexual minority, language and geography can adequately be captured in communities through these methods of data collection. GeoCensos showed that community-generated data has an important role to play in making invisible people visible, understanding the contextual challenges and recommending policies and provisions for promoting inclusive achievement of the SDGs.

Micro, community-level experiences around the world such as these show it is possible to build the capacities of community volunteers to draw both quantitative and qualitative data to reflect the complex challenges faced by local communities. Although governments have been limited during the pandemic in their ability to generate, share, interoperate and disseminate geospatial and statistical data in a timely and reliable manner, data partnerships with external actors appear to be a promising solution.

Towards truly inclusive data

If no one is to be left behind, local territories and communities can and should be prioritised for a greater scale of data collection. Leveraging local communities is essential in assuring equality and inclusivity in the data attained. Not leaving anyone behind implies that all relevant actors in society need to be involved vibrantly in the production of data. This data should be opened for all not only around access and tailored policymaking but also in the co-production challenge and the derived free use.

‘Open’ is not the same as ‘free’. We need technical and financial investments to fully scale and grow to what is needed. Most importantly funding is essential to support targeted coaching and stewardship. Citizen-to-government data partnerships are increasingly gaining support, especially for the generation of geospatial data and within national statistic offices worldwide. But local partners will need to be able to secure investments to deliver on their side of the partnership. These non-official methods for generating data should be acknowledged and promoted in the endeavour for a well-funded SDG data production and use system.

We now need a common effort to create an enabling environment of technical, financial and other support to make this possible. The third World Data Forum provided an apt space to discuss the need for advocating community-generated data to promote inclusion and ensure data systems are fit for the purpose of leaving no one behind. This requires truly multi-stakeholder engagement from local communities through to global leadership – from the technical to the natural, the individual to the collective – coming together to make this possible.