Patricia Scheid at the Hewlett Foundation

There’s no question that the potential of the ‘data revolution’ first described in the U.N.’s “A World that Counts” report has captured the imagination of the international development community, especially data-wonks and donors concerned with how the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will be measured. In the many discussions that have ensued, a consistent theme has been an aspiration to realize the potential of ‘non-traditional data sources.’ Non-traditional, for these revolutionaries, means not just the oft-cited Big Data, but forms of citizen-generated information that can shed light on real-world living conditions and public opinion.

Case in point—Senegal. In February, a team at Université Cheikh Anta Diop’s Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Transformations Économique et Sociales in Dakar revealed the results of their 2014 national assessment of children’s learning known as Jàngandoo (which means “learn together”)—part of a growing movement of civil society organizations who are carrying out independent, citizen-led efforts to measure basic learning of children ages six to fourteen in reading and Math in nine countries in East and West Africa, South Asia and Mexico. (Les resultats en francais).

Jàngandoo has only been up and running for three years, but policymakers in Senegal have taken notice. M. Serigne Mbaye Thiam, Senegal’s Minister of Education and no stranger to open data efforts, opened the national dissemination event, noting Jàngandoo’s contribution to providing policy makers and ordinary citizens timely data on the status of children’s learning that is easy to understand and interpret so that they can plan together actions for improving the quality of education. Since then, Jàngandoo has been rolling out regional dissemination events that have opened up a dialogue between citizen’s groups and local education officials about why children aren’t learning and what can be done about it.

Like other citizen-led assessments of learning, Jàngandoo takes place in homes rather than at school, and therefore captures data on children who do not attend regularly, have dropped out or never attended school, measuring learning earlier and more broadly than official national or regional assessments, which typically take place later in the primary cycle. Jàngandoo’s learning assessments are administered in multiple languages—French, Wolof, Pulaar and Arabic, depending on the child’s home language. According to UNESCO’s EFA Global Monitoring Report 2015, Jàngandoo is the only national-level assessment that has measured Senegalese children’s learning levels below Grade 9 in almost 10 years. The most recent PASEC, which measured children’s performance at the end of class 2 and class 5 in eight Francophone countries, including Senegal, is from 2007.

Unlike other citizen-led assessments, Jàngandoo also measures children’s knowledge of their own culture and environment, including certain aspects of sustainable development. Such locally-driven experimentation can also contribute to how UNESCO and others think about localizing how education for sustainable development gets measured in West Africa, a region where the effects of climate change and drought are an ever-present reality in nearly every child’s life.

Jàngandoo is an initiative of the Université Cheikh Anta Diop’s Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Transformations Économique et Sociales (Laboratory for Research on Economic and Social Transformation—LARTES). LARTES works with a network of twelve civil society organizations and a local technology firm that deploy a cadre of trained data gatherers armed with PDAs to reach all 45 departments of Senegal—all of whom make up what is known as Jàngandoo.

What’s striking about LARTES is that its staff is comprised mainly of young men and women representing a new breed of independent researchers in West Africa. If there is a data revolution, these are the revolutionaries. What’s their latest innovation? Ask Professor Abdou Fall, Jàngandoo’s leader, about his vision for on demand, a la carte data services for local governments who aspire to develop data-informed plans for improving their schools. Their first client: the Mayor of Dakar.

All this takes coordination and careful oversight, but also a particular vision for how data can be used to solve real development challenges. The sort of vision set out by the Africa Data Consensus for bringing different data communities together to generate “data for public good and inclusive development”.

While the global-level conversations about the data revolution are creating needed energy and networks, a cadre of data revolutionaries in civil society and tucked away in government agencies is also hard at work. Their progress often depends upon external funding that runs out before they can institutionalize their efforts. Perhaps what is needed then is a revolution in financing that will nurture the work of country-level data heroes like the LARTES team at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Senegal. People who think differently about “data for whom,” “data for what” and the speed at which data can be made useable to change people’s lives for the better.

The Hewlett Foundation Blog