Big Data, Small World: Carleton Project Enhances Sustainable Development

By Elizabeth Murphy
Photos by Caitlin Sivert

In our increasingly data-driven world, even sustainable development efforts can be improved through data analysis.

An innovative international development project at Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) is aiming to do just that. Since its inaugural report last summer, the Canadian International Development Platform (CIDP) has achieved major milestones, secured a significant funding agreement and launched new initiatives.

Led by Prof. Aniket Bhushan, the CIDP launched its online presence and, last June, published its 2016 Data Report. The project evaluates open data from government and institutional sources to inform, enhance and refine international development efforts.

“The Canadian International Development Platform is the kind of practical policy-relevant research that the school is known for,” says NPSIA Director Dane Rowlands. “This project also gave our development students an opportunity to participate in research where we start with real questions and problems and see what the evidence says about possible solutions.”

The project, primarily funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, included the participation and employment of approximately six Carleton students each semester.

The Gates foundation awarded the CIDP another two-year grant last September to continue this important work.

Objective Data Analysis

The platform focuses on analyzing open data to measure Canada’s engagement on global development. It was launched to fill what the organizers saw as a void in the international development community for objective data review.

“The function of the project is to be an information intermediary,” says Bhushan. “There is a lot of research out there, and there is a real need for objective data analysis. We like to say we are leveraging open big data to support international development and prosperity.”

The platform analyzes data gathered from Canadian government and institutional sources, such as the World Bank, and its results are organized into four main indicators: foreign assistance; international trade; migration and remittances; and foreign investment.

The analysis shows that, in addition to the moral obligation to help improve living conditions for people throughout the world, there is a noted economic benefit to Canada to investing in developing countries.

In order for policy-makers to craft effective international development initiatives, the data points to the critical importance of looking beyond foreign aid.

“Our fastest growing trade partners are our development partners,” says Bhushan. “In some countries, our import flows are 10 times larger than our development aid flows. For example, Bangladesh receives $100 million in aid support, but Canadian imports from Bangladesh are worth $1 billion. So trade is naturally going to be very important.

“Today’s developing world is not your grandmother’s developing world. It’s here and now.”

Easy Public Access to Data

The centrepiece of the project is an easy-to-use online interface connecting the public to information on the four indicators and infographics depicting key findings.

“We found that the public was very hungry for good data that is balanced, feeds curiosity and doesn’t speak conclusions to them,” says Bhushan.

The online platform allows users to sift through significant data sources with relative ease, while maintaining objectivity.

“Three clicks and you can see every live project in an area,” says Bhushan. “We don’t say if those projects are great or not, we just provide the data.”

The 2016 report outlines areas for Canada to improve its development efforts and urges policy-makers to look beyond foreign aid as the only policy lever. An integrated development strategy would link aid, trade, investment and remittances, as well as examine how these areas impact development goals.

The 2016 report notes that, in many cases, the amount Canada gives to countries in foreign aid is routed back to Canada via tariffs paid by those same nations on their imports. Regarding remittances, it found that diaspora communities are a major source of financial flows for developing countries and that Canada needs to address information gaps in this area. It also called for more open data collection on Canadian private investment in developing countries.

“Canada’s future prosperity depends on a safe, stable prosperous global economy for everyone,” says Bhushan. “That’s why we need to look at the broad strategic picture.”

More Projects Underway

The success of the platform has also led to a new initiative. A joint project with the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) has launched the Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (RMNCH) Project Explorer. The Explorer echoes the platform in its distilling of aggregate data and an easy-to-use interface that provides users with insight into Canada’s financial commitments to women and children’s health projects.  Visitors to the site can apply filters, such as a specific country and project sector (like nutrition), to determine Canada’s level of investment in improving the worldwide health of women and children in near real time.

As well, the CIDP has launched Innovation in Global Development –an event series dedicated to engaging the development community to share experiences and examine innovations that hold real promise for positive change and can improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. An October 2016 roundtable discussion titled Transition to equitable low-carbon growth in developing countries: opportunities, challenges, role for Canada was held as the inaugural event. The occasion brought together a wide array of stakeholders to discuss how innovation, clean technology and Canada’s development goals can be integrated. The event series continues throughout 2017.

Recently, CIDP held the conference How Can Canada Deliver? Responding to the Changing Global Development Context. The April 28 event gathered Canadian and international experts to discuss the future of global development initiatives on a number of fronts and how Canada can play a leading role in the new landscape. The conference was especially relevant in a time of changing conditions in the international development world.

Following these successes, Bhushan looks forward to continuing to grow the project. Over the next two years, he and his team will scale up and engage further with students and faculty from other disciplines. Increased collaboration with other university departments is a key part of the project’s future plan.

“We want to be the people who help solve these issues,” says Bhushan.

The launch of the 2017 Data Report is expected this summer.