Strength in numbers

The importance of data collection for Caribbean development.

Data is a collection of facts (numbers, words, measurements, observations, etc).  If it is only readable by humans, it is known as “unstructured data” whilst if it only readable by machines, it is known as “structured data”.

In their report, “Open Data Impact: When Demand and Supply Meet”, Stefaan Verhulst and Andrew Young, defined open data as “publicly available data that can be universally and readily accessed, used and redistributed free of charge. It is structured for usability and computability”. In the same report, they identified these benefits of open data:

  1. Improved governance through improved transparency which results in tackling corruption, and by enhancing public services and resource allocation;
  2. Empowered citizenry by facilitating new ways of communicating and accessing information, which enables citizens to make more informed decisions, and creates new forms of social mobilization;
  3. New Opportunities are created for citizens and organizations through innovation, and the promotion of economic growth; and
  4. Public problems are solved through data-driven assessment of problems, engagement, and production of targeted interventions.

In a 2003 report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Caribbean is described as “data poor” as a result of relevant obstacles such as lack of financial resources, lack of qualified personnel, lack of institutional capacity, lack of coordination between departments and low priority on the political agenda.

Interestingly, five years later, in response to complaints about data sharing among government agencies, the Government of Jamaica conducted a Gap Analysis to identify the issues. Of the 13 issues identified, all 5 of the obstacles described in the ECLAC report were listed by the Government of Jamaica. Additionally, the Government identified incompatible data format – much of the data is paper based which leads to inefficiency in viewing, and transferring; lack of data sharing policy – complicated by other legislations which indirectly affect data sharing; inadequate record management in the public sector – due to a lack of standards for recording, classifying, storing, and managing data; and the absence of metadata – data that describes and defines other data, as some of its other issues.

According to a 2015 report by Sonia Jackson on behalf of the Caribbean Open Institute (COI), the issues discovered by the Government of Jamaica, also plague other Caribbean nations. According to Jackson however, those issues are general data sharing issues, some of which also affect the National Statistics Office of Caribbean countries. The National Statistics Office is the leading statistical agency within a statistical system, and according to Jackson, their biggest problem may be that of the culture of secrecy.

Many working in the research field in the Caribbean can attest to the issues identified, especially that of secrecy. Dionne Carbon, a Research Assistant with the Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Studies (CERMES), describes the experience of trying to acquire data for a COI initiative, as encountering “nuff road blocks”.

The issues described as those experienced when data remains closed. If a data is closed on the national, and regional level, what are these potential roadblocks to?

According to the 2003 ECLAC report,

“…in the absence of data and information, policies adopted and implemented have been arrived at on the basis of little or no data and less information. The result is years of wandering in the wilderness of development – talking of visions of the promised land of development without the ability to measure proximity to that goal.”

Open Data and Sustainable Development

Sustainable development, which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, open data can help us achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals were adopted in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and within the next 15 years (from 2015) they seek to end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and fix climate change.

COI was born out of a 2010 workshop in Jamaica, “Towards a Caribbean Open Institute: Data, Communications and Impact”, which was hosted by the International Development Research Centre. Thanks to these initiatives we may not have to wander in the wilderness of development for 40 years. “The COI is a regional coalition of individuals and organisations that promote open development approaches to inclusion, participation and innovation within the Caribbean, using open data as a catalyst”. In the past seven years, COI has developed and implemented many initiatives”. Many of COI’s primary activities include public engagement, awareness, advocacy, capacity building, and research, all of which can help lead us to the open data promise land sooner rather than later.

COI hopes to use open data to help us achieve SDG 14 which is to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”. Particularly, the Caribbean Gateway Open Data, a COI project, an initiative hosted by the University of West Indies, “seeks to demonstrate the value of bringing diverse datasets together to enhance innovation in planning, management and communications and effective decision-making about Protected Areas”, specifically, Marine Protected Areas.

If successful, this is just the tip of the iceberg. COI is also using open data to improve Jamaica’s agriculture sector, which would undoubtedly assist Jamaica in achieving SDG 2 which is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. According to the project’s final report, the project was successful in developing open data technology artefacts such as and OpenData Webservices API for Agriculture Data, a Microfinance Loan Management Application, and an AgroAssistant mobile application, among other successes. The report went on to describe how Caribbeans can reap the benefits of open data using Information Communication Technologies (ICT).

COI is but one open data initiate in the Caribbean, so think of the possibilities.

According to information from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Trinidad and Tobago’s office, one of the ways the Caribbean can achieve SDG 9, to “build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation”, is by having a single ICT space.

Open data helps us to get a clearer picture of the problem, and thereby a clearer understanding, from there on we can make informed decisions. To the Caribbean, the open data promise land looks like achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Open Data and You

In Jackson’s report, she indicated that many countries in the Caribbean are largely classified as Small Island Development States (SIDS) characterized by small land masses, low populations, and similar macroeconomic features – low growth rate, high cost of living, and high unemployment rate. “In addition, most SIDS are located in geographic regions which make them extremely vulnerable as they are prone to natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes and others”.

Therefore, in the Caribbean, when it comes to development, we have no choice but to do it sustainably.

Every year since 2006, on May 17th, the United Nations observes World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WITSD). This year the theme is, “big data for big impact”, “which will explore the power of big data for development and examine the opportunities to convert unprecedented quantities of data into information that can drive development”. However, before we can have big data, open big data, and use big data, we must first collect data.

This WITSD, take some time to write to your Prime Minister, your Ministers, your Members of Parliament, and your Editors. Caribbean Governments need to put research, data collection, and sharing, on the national agenda; your survival depends on it.

When it comes to development, we have strength in numbers.

Caribbean Connections
La Tisha Parkinson

La Tisha Parkinson is a final year student at the University of the West Indies St Augustine reading for a BSc in Biology with a minor in Environmental Natural Resource Management. Her passion lies in ecology and related themes such as biodiversity, and conservation. A Trinidad and Tobago national, La Tisha simply tries to make a positive impact in the world with everything she does.
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