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Turd Polishing and Other Data Pitfalls

April 10, 2011

to be fair, when it comes to foreign and domestic policy the turds and the polishers come in an almost infinite variety of shapes and colors

I could attempt to convey to you guys how absolutely insane this week has been but no matter how eloquently and amazingly I wrote about it…it would not even come close.  But suffice it to say that yesterday I resorted to downing cake donuts and caffeine in order to comfort myself.  Wonkiest week in a long time…entirely possible it’s been the wonkiest week ever, and certainly the wonkiest in memory.  It’s been busy and stressful but also absolutely, incredibly strange and emotional.  I have no doubt the strange factor will subside but it will remain busy so I can’t promise what I’ll be able to offer you in the next few weeks.  Life happens in full force sometimes and the entire month of April is looking to be one of those times.  You might notice that I’ve switched it up and am now capitalizing (assuming you realized it was me writing this post and not him).  It makes me anxious and uncomfortable but I figured this was a good place to get used to it, seeing as how I’ll be doing a rather ginormous amount of writing in grad school the next few years and they tend to be fans of capitalization.  But on an up note I figured out how to toggle between full screen mode and the crappy one inch high writing screen that I’ve been using…so I’m ridiculously stoked about this.  And also Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, and related tunes, are currently being blasted in the shop so this is also happy making.

So…carrying on.

Up first, this video regarding the “a day without dignity” campaign from the folks over at Good Intentions Are Not Enough that breaks the situation down a bit more.  And also another write up on the topic that I would encourage you to check out:  Good intentions vs Good results.

I’m bringing this up again because it’s a good warm up to where I’m headed with today’s post regarding some of the perils of data.  They exemplify what happens when we have misleading data, or a lack of useful data, or meaningless data disguised as meaningful data that often perpetuates misconceptions and leads to unhelpful (even harmful) responses.  I’ll be focusing somewhat specifically on data and development.  This is partly because I’m interested in development but also partly because it’s an area where there has been a lot of struggles with data.

Data is not inherently evil…it’s when we use it to make generalizations, or use it as an indicator or stake claims on it, that it becomes a tricky beastie.  It’s highly malleable and thus has the potential to become highly manipulative.  It can be, and is, the basis for a lot of propaganda.  It’s especially sketchy in the development world in this age of profiteering and disaster capitalism and private consulting firms (and governments and associated officials) swooping up large amounts of cash overseas in the name of aid and development.  Data in development has been used to make tenuous, suspect, or even completely non-existent cause and effect connections.  Sometimes this is completely intentional and knowingly misleading, and other times it’s done in complete ignorance.  So I encourage you to proceed with caution, both when using data to stake your own claims, but also when surveying the work of others and their associated claims.  Data and statistics do not necessarily equal any sort of unassailable truth, and are often, surprisingly, relative.  So with those words of caution, we will forge ahead into the murky realm of aid and development indexes/data/measurements where data use and collection has been particularly persnickety and where seemingly meaningful data is often meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  And by grand scheme of things I mean policy making and on the ground, real world, issues and solutions.  And to do that I will point you in the direction of Mr. Edward Carr because I am not his equal as a writer, but perhaps more importantly, I am not his equal as a development geographer.  Where I merely aspire he is an actual, real life, professional development geographer and is much more versed in the language and politics of development and much more entrenched and experienced in the actual practice.  The best place, and by best I mean what I deem the most useful place, to start is with this post from him about polishing turds.  It covers some of the main issues in general, while also addressing some specific issues with more recent attempts at using data to address development and progress.  Next I will point you in the direction of two more of his posts which should give you some food for thought:  National level and satellite sentinels.  I would also encourage you to just hang out at his site and check out more of his posts, if this sort of thing interests you.

None of this is meant to downplay the importance of data, in development or elsewhere.  It’s absolutely crucial, particularly in setting policy in any number of realms.  I suppose that on some level I’m trying to point out how far we have to go in the world of data.  We need to get better at collecting data, we need to get better at choosing and finding appropriate data for our given aims.  Data is (or at least can be) a powerful tool but it has so far underachieved (to no fault of its own…the fault is ours), and it’s imperative that we work towards rectifying this, to really making data work for us and to use it to it’s full potential.  But we need to be careful and cautious and offer caveats and be aware that data, however useful and however capable we become at using it, will never tell the whole story.

I was going to discuss the MDGs in this post as well but I really need to go figure out how to make the apiary industry in Turkey environmentally, economically and sociopolitically sustainable so the MDGs will have to wait.  So today I leave you with all of that.  And next time we meet I will present to you what I think is a rather good example of well chosen, collected and applied data and also we will (hopefully) discuss the MDGs.  Cheers.

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