Beyond Data: The Limits of Evaluative Data

The New York Times has a great op-ed by David Brooks today, February 18, entitled ‘What Data Can’t Do’. The underlying message? That mass quantitative data alone cannot inform decision making: it must be contextualized and valued.

In peacebuilding, and fragile and conflict-affected states in general, contextualization and valuing of data requires first and foremost and intimate reading of the pulse of a country: the conflict and context dynamics and what is feasible and appropriate within those boundaries.  This in turn requires a conflict analysis that logically and realistically separates the conflict from the context—already a challenge in peacebuilding programming, even more so in evaluation.

Feasibility also requires that we identify logical entry points, connectors and dividers, and whether our skill-set adds value to those connectors and dividers given on-the-ground realities.  Just because an action can be taken doesn’t mean that it should be taken.  Familiarity with peacebuilding concepts, processes, values and worldviews is therefore critical for an evaluator to make an effective statement on relevance.

And this is the challenge in peacebuilding, particularly in evaluating relevance: contextualizing data with our own unique worldviews and skill-sets, while at the same time recognizing the strengths and weaknesses, reaches and limitations of our actions.  This is something data cannot tell us.  It is through the innate qualities that make us uniquely human that such difficult decisions are made, and making our values and assumptions explicit allows us to check for another unavoidable occurrence in humanity: fallacy.

Listed here are just a few of the implications of the limits of data in monitoring and evaluation.  What others do you experience?  And how do you overcome or work within these limitations?


What Data Can’t Do by David Brooks, New York Times February 18 2013

Evaluating Relevance in Peacebuilding Programs: CDA Working Paper S... by Mark M. Rogers for CDA Inc

Evaluability Assessments in Peacebuilding Programming: CDA Working ... by Cordula Reimann for CDA Inc

Peacebuilding How? Good Practices in Conflict Analysis by Koenraad Van Brabant for Interpeace

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Tags: brooks, data, david, dme, evaluation, feasibility, monitoring, nyt, peacebuilding, relevance


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Comment by Richard Nidel on February 19, 2013 at 9:59pm

I wrote a paper on this very subject, which was published as "Where Information Doesn't Matter:  Managing on the Moon", which was published in December, 2009 in the Proceedings of AIMS7.

Please do not copy my work, my ideas, or my thoughts.

Make up your own.


Comment by Sean Martin McDonald on February 19, 2013 at 5:38pm

Just to say that conflating data with how people use data is a dangerous mistake. Like all tools, it comes down to the person using it. Data can't "do" anything- it never could. People using data, however, can (and can't) do lots of things. But that's not because of the data. The limits of data lie in how you define, collect, aggregate, analyze, and apply it. I think we agree in principle, but until we start separating things like "who" and "how," we're going to have a hard time answering questions as complex as how to monitor conflict.

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