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Thoughts from the Data Festival (1): Power of Definitions in Data work

I travelled 40 hours from Nairobi to Uruguay to attend the first Data Festival after COVID-19. The event underscored how the world seems to have paused for those three years since 2020.

On day zero, I attended a couple of exciting sessions. The first was co-organized by our hosts, The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (now called The Global Partnership) and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. The second one was organized by our hosts, pushing forward the Power of Data initiative. These events were seminal for us as they set the stage for the depth of the conversations that will be had at the Festival over the next couple of days.

At the sessions, I had two significant observations, the first of which I share here.

Words have meaning, and they underscore the significant role language plays in communication, perception, and action. With definitions follow action, programmes and finances.

In general, Citizen Generated Data (CGD) refers to data produced by individuals or groups of citizens, where non-professional data producers maintain the initiative for production and the control over the process. In contrast, Citizen Science typically involves the public in the scientific process to address real-world problems, often in collaboration with professional scientists. Meanwhile, Community Data may be collected by community members or about a community but doesn’t necessarily involve scientific research. When such terms are clearly defined, they set the parameters for what is included within each category, why it’s being collected, and how it can be used, ensuring the effectiveness and integrity of the data-driven initiatives.

When I hear the terms being used interchangeably, as I have in various conversations, I am mainly motivated by the need to be inclusive. The argument for inclusivity and empowerment through less strict definitions suggests that by not boxing in concepts with rigid meanings, a broader range of interpretations can be welcomed, encouraging participation from diverse stakeholders. This perspective values the flexibility that can adapt to different contexts and communities, often essential for grassroots and participatory movements.

I argue that the lack of definitions and ‘distinctifying’ the concepts would have the opposite effect in three critical ways. First, if terms are too vague or broadly defined, they can be interpreted differently. This can lead to confusion, misinterpretation, and a lack of clear direction, potentially alienating stakeholders who cannot find common ground or feel their understanding is not being acknowledged.

Secondly, in a setting where definitions are not agreed upon, those with more influence or better rhetorical skills might dominate the discourse, imposing their interpretations of terms over others. This can marginalize less powerful stakeholders, effectively excluding them from meaningful participation. Without clear definitions, there is a risk that powerful entities might co-opt terms to serve their ends, potentially excluding or marginalizing certain groups. Precise language can serve as a safeguard against such practices.

Finally, Policies and programs based on loosely defined terms may be difficult to implement consistently. This can result in uneven application, with some groups receiving more benefits than others, thus fostering inequality and disempowerment. In addition, the ambiguity that is lent by the flexible definitions can lead to challenges in the allocation of resources. If it is not clear what is being funded or supported due to vague definitions, resources may not reach those who are most in need or may be used in ways that do not address the intended issues.

Empowerment comes from being informed and understanding the system within which one operates. Clear definitions can empower stakeholders by giving them the knowledge to participate in discussions and decisions fully. Clear definitions do not necessarily limit perspectives; they can establish a framework within which various viewpoints and experiences can be expressed and understood in relation to each other.

Perhaps most importantly, with a clear understanding of terms, different groups can more effectively collaborate, ensuring their efforts are complementary and synergistic rather than redundant or at cross-purposes.

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