Data love: The risk of humanitarians acting like scientists | 

Mad Scientist WikimediaWarning: Reductionism can result in distorted vision, poor judgment and difficulty in operating a humanitarian project.

There’s a popular trend today among many humanitarians, aka the aid and development sector, to try to show the benefit of their projects – be it digging a well, feeding kids or improving access to basic health care – with scientific data.

That’s good in principle, if you have a well-designed study that produces meaningful data. But that can be a big if when what you are trying to test is a reduction in poverty, social and economic improvements, healthy behavior change or many of the other aims of aid and development.

It’s much easier for scientists to test a more isolated intervention, like say taking a pill, than it is to even figure out how best to track and attribute the potential impact of many humanitatian efforts. And it’s worth noting that the scientific community is finally acknowledging that even their most refined efforts in reductionist deduction, peer review and attribution often fail.

NY Times Scientific Pride and Prejudice

Economist Trouble at the Lab

Forbes NIH Promises to Make Science Less Wrong

The mainstream scientific community likes to call this a ‘reproducibility’ problem, saying the overall reliability and self-correcting nature of the scientific method(s) remain intact. But when it is noted, as in the NYTimes op-ed, that a team of scientists could only confirm the findings in six of more than 50 ‘landmark’ cancer studies, there is cause for concern.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian sector has a different problem. It tends to suffer from a lack of data or consensus on how best to measure the impact of various initiatives aimed at fighting poverty, diseases of poverty or other kinds of human inequity. The field did not arise, like science, from a desire to know so much as from a desire to help.

So will it help if humanitarians become more like scientists? Maybe. Maybe not. Continue reading

How a prize-winning computer programmer fights poverty |
Yaw Anokwa

If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital in the developing world, you see all kinds of problems. Sometimes conditions are decrepit, or the facility is understaffed, or it’s charging too much for healthcare.

Then there’s “the paper problem.” Data about each patient – name, age, symptoms, everything that’s critical to good treatment – gets scrawled on slips of paper. Often these slips get filed away, but they’re inaccurate or badly written. Or they get lost. The whole system is cumbersome and slow, which means worse health outcomes for patients.

In a challenging resource-poor setting, how do you solve this issue?

Yaw Anokwa figured it out. He’s one of the minds behind the Open Data Kit (ODK), a data collection platform that’s been implemented in hospitals in Rwanda and Kenya, where the it cut down processing times for AIDS patients  by months. Farmers in Uganda, street children in India, election monitors, even environmental activists in Brazil – all of them have used Open Data Kit in innovative ways to collect data using smartphones and then use the information swiftly and productively.

Anokwa himself has come a long way. He moved to the United States from Ghana at a young age, and his passion for computer programming once got him suspended from school for a week. Now he has a new software company called Nafundi whose business is built around ODK.

Tom Paulson talks to Anokwa about his personal story, why he eschews more lucrative technology work, and where Open Data Kit goes from here. ODK is an amazing technology, but the story of how Anokwa has used it – carefully, keeping it open-source, and in partnerships with local organizations around the world – is just as important. Before the interview, our Boston correspondent Tom Murphy and I discuss the headlines from this week, including food aid and corruption.

Listen to the end for Anokwa’s tantalizing comments on what the next generation of this technology looks like. (And don’t forget to subscribe to the Humanosphere podcast on iTunes.)

Celebrated data guru Hans Rosling admits he doesn’t like data | 

The Guardian reports that Hans Rosling, the celebrated scientist who has made data cool, doesn’t actually like data that much:

“I don’t like it. My interest is not data, it’s the world. And part of world development you can see in numbers. Others, like human rights, empowerment of women, it’s very difficult to measure in numbers.” 

Rosling is strikingly upfront about the limitations of data. Sometimes, the problem is that different countries measure things – like unemployment – in different ways, he says. In other cases, there are real uncertainties in the data that must be assessed: child mortality statistics are quite precise, whereas maternal mortality figures are not; global poverty measurements are infrequent and uncertain.

Still, Rosling does make boring and complicated numbers easy to understand, fun … and cool. Here he is on climate change and population growth:

World Bank interactive data map, wonk treasure trove | 

Increasingly, organizations with massive amounts of interesting and important information are putting their data online in forms that are both easily accessible and understandable.

The World Bank likely has more data relevant to issues in global development, health and poverty than any other organization. And now they have made it available to the public here.

Though the site may look, at first glance, about as exciting as cold oatmeal, a closer look likely will make data wonks’ hearts beat faster.

World Bank

It’s an incredible treasure trove of country-level information organized into further categories such as agriculture, aid effectiveness (that will cause some debate), environment, health, labor and so on. Each of these are broken down into subcategories as well.

Have fun you wonks!