Data has a PR problem. Here's how good stories can change that.

Data has an image problem. You can barely open a newspaper without the impacts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the labor market and technology screaming out at you. But the well-established benefits that data itself could contribute to solving some of the biggest global challenges seem to be largely missing from the conversation.

Why is this? Of course, most data for development professionals are familiar with the issues that make garnering support for data a challenge: Dynamics of political economy mean that weak data systems often serve powerful actors; there’s the mismatch between donors three to five-year funding and electoral cycles; and investments in data systems take a long time to show results in terms of institutional reform and capacity development—the list goes on and on. These challenges are difficult to overcome. But, in this post, I’d like to make the case that sharpening the way we talk about data can make a difference in the attention these issues receive. Let me explain.  

Investing in data is smart, so why is it hard to get people’s buy-in?

For years before I joined the Global Partnership in September, I worked in global health, campaigning on issues such as access to vaccines and fixing the broken antibiotics development market. I became quite familiar with blockers to action on these topics, but one blocker that I never faced was difficulty in explaining the importance of these issues for sustainable development. It’s quite easy to comprehend and hard to argue against the millions of lives saved by vaccines and antibiotics and especially their impacts on children. Photos and stories—of parents walking miles to clinics with their children or doctors bringing medication to rural areas—are concrete and compelling, which makes talking to policymakers and donors much easier.

Data is a different kettle of fish. Its importance for development is not only poorly understood by those outside of the data community but is also difficult to explain. Data conversations are full of technical language and data itself has the general perception of being boring or only of interest to specialists. 

But if we can cut through these misconceptions there is great progress to be made. I was gobsmacked at the relatively small amounts of money being asked of funders for data compared to the other funding calls I had worked on. (A COVID-19 fundraising campaign I worked on, for example, asked for $7 billion from the global community.) Yet the relatively small amounts being asked for to fund national data systems are still not being met. (The Power of Data initiative, for example, advocates for around $3-5 million from donors and commitments of 0.8 to 0.1 percent of GDP from countries.) We know that data is a smart investment generating an average of $32 in economic returns for every $1 spent—a return similar to vaccines and one that should be highly appealing to big international funders. Unlocking support and funding for data would be huge in terms of progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

In order to garner the political will and support for data in development, we need to continue to find ways to make this topic salient, memorable, and understandable. Here are five tips from my experience in advocacy to make data stories come to life: 

  1. Tell a story that connects with your audience’s core values. People identify with stories about people, especially when seeking to understand complicated topics beyond our realm of experience. One way to do this is to connect to values such as fairness, equity, or inclusion. Explaining how data practices can help to reduce inequality, protect human rights, and concretely improve lives is essential to getting decision-makers on board. For example, the Voices of #DataValues series communicates the importance of data through first-hand accounts of individuals fighting for justice for their communities.

  1. Sharpen your messages to speak directly to urgent problems. Once you’ve identified your audiences and their core values, look for ways to make your stories about issues that are pertinent and timely to your audience, like climate change, protecting wildlife, or violence against women. If a story is broadly interesting it doesn’t have to be specific to a place or to certain people (see the wildlife story linked above). But some issues will only be interesting to the people who are directly affected (see the examples of location- or issue-specific climate change stories in the link above). It’s not enough to simply say that better data can help solve problems—we’ve got to show, not tell. 

  1. Bin the jargon. As a relative newcomer to the data field, I was honestly overwhelmed by the amount of technical language and acronyms in this space. The tricky thing is that those of us who use this language regularly have blind spots, assuming that everyone understands terms like digitization or machine learning. To overcome this, ask a non-data expert to give feedback on your stories or use an automated tool like the free Hemingway App. As this article rightly points out, it’s not just about the words we’re using, but the way we explain what we do that affects the support that, in this case, data receives. 

  1. Promote the positive without sounding naive. A good story starts with a problem, by definition, a negative story. But in telling stories that focus only on problems, we risk making our audience feel overwhelmed and powerless to make change. To combat this, draw from well-established principles of solutions journalism. This doesn’t mean we should tell naively positive stories. We can learn as much from stories of failure as success. The key is to tell the story of how data contributes to addressing an otherwise intractable problem, to be honest about its limitations and clear about its impact. (Here’s a good example about Citizen-generated Data.)

  1. Make it astoundingly, shockingly easy for your audience to understand what you want. I’ve been struck by this claim that less than a third of the World Bank’s well-researched and informative reports are ever downloaded—not even once! It speaks to something we all inherently feel (busy) and do (stick to our regular consumption habits). To engage a broader audience in our stories about data, we have to make it overwhelmingly easy for people to understand what we’re talking about and asking for from them. So, if we must publish a detailed report, it’s important to make the content easy to find, access, and skim. Present your agenda or make your asks up front. And disseminate your stories based on your audience’s habits: Think about where your audiences are already looking to get information, rather than assuming they will come to your social media or website.

One data story that has stuck with me is this one, from a Data Values Advocates in India. In this video, Mayuri explains how data spurred government action to transform girls’ lives and increase access to schooling: 

What this story shows is that communicating about data is only one part of a larger effort. Mayuri’s persistence in engaging with political actors, the women in the stories’ willingness to provide data, and policymakers’ openness to hearing their stories and making changes were all key to addressing this problem. But my hope is that, by sharing stories like Mayuri’s, we can increase the impact of her work and compel more people to care about and invest in data-focused solutions. 

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