CESR advocates for a human rights approach to the data revolution

Publish Date: 
Monday, October 20, 2014

Last week, the Center for Economic and Social Rights made a submission to the Secretary-General's Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development (IEAG), urging the IEAG to adopt a human rights and equality-focused approach to the "data revolution". The submission notes that while there is a welcome rhetorical commitment to making the data revolution empowering, without strategic thinking about how to achieve this, there is still a real risk of it becoming yet another top-down, technocratic exercise.  It argues that a rights-focused approach can help translate that rhetorical commitment into a genuinely transformative data revolution, by offering guidance on what data should be prioritized; how data should be collected, analyzed and disseminated; for what purpose; and who the ultimate users of data are. Some highlights from the submission follow.

What data should be prioritized

The imperative to tackle inequalities and ‘leave no one behind’ has been identified as a core priority of the global development agenda. In order to make real, sustained progress in this regard, more disaggregated data, focusing on multiple inequalities and various grounds of discrimination such as gender, economic status, disability status, and geographical region will be needed to understand which groups are doubly or triply disadvantaged and identify where where further efforts and resources need to be directed.

Further, in order to build a holistic picture of progress, it is necessary to focus on data related not only to outcomes but also to policy efforts, including the use and generation of resources. The MDGs focused exclusively on outcomes in order to facilitate comparison of country performance. But this weakened accountability for them, because countries started off in very different situations with wildly varying efforts needed to achieve the Goals. 

Finally, open and reliable fiscal and financial data, within and between countries, would help to shed light on the ways that public revenues lost from illicit financial flows affect states' abilities to fulfill their development commitments, in line with their obligation to dedicate maximum available resources to the realization of economic, social and cultural rights. 

How data should be collected, analyzed and disseminated

A real power shift comes from recognizing people as citizens and rights-holders, not as mere subjects and consumers of data. As such, it is crucial that data generated is widely accessible, not left to gather dust in government statistical offices. Ensuring the effective implementation of right to information laws are a key strategy in this respect. 

Furthermore, civil society must be empowered and enabled to use and analyze data, as well as collect their own. In particular, individuals and communities facing poverty and deprivation must be enabled to meaningfully participate in data collection initiatives, including those that open up official statistics and harness big data for social justice ends.

Some ways to put the participatory human rights approach into effect include: establishing more open and transparent lines of communication between official statistical offices and the public; including individuals and communities facing poverty and deprivation as "experiential experts" in advisory committees for big data projects; upholding the right to privacy and informed consent; improving data literacy, especially among communities living in poverty.

The purpose of data

Data is important for accountability. It helps provide hard evidence to back up claims that governments and others are falling short of their development commitments and human rights obligations. A rights-focus reminds us that the data revolution isn't being driven by a desire for more data for its own sake. Rather, it comes from a thirst for detailed, objective information about what progress is being made, how resources are being raised and spent, who is benefiting from development initiatives and who is being left behind. This is information that can ultimately be used to hold decision-makers answerable and to advocate for change, for equality and – where necessary – for justice. 

The ultimate users of data

Real change can only come about if data serves to empower those deprived of their rights as a result of development failures to claim their rights through effective mechanisms of accountability. It is therefore critical to strengthen the capacity of human rights accountability mechanisms at the local, national and international levels (ranging from National Human Rights Institutions, to courts, to UN treaty bodies) to use and interpret data. Civil society groups will also need to be supported in their efforts to gather and present data before these accountability mechanisms in ways that can substantiate and illuminate their human rights concerns.