Sometime in 2015, I had the opportunity to serve as an Urban Decoder and Researcher for YouthfulCities. YouthfulCities is a global initiative to rank the world’s 100 cities from a youth perspective, thereby leading a unique urban regeneration in the process. The project focus sought to answer 3 major questions: what are the best cities in the world for young people to live, work and play? As simple as the 3 measurement points are, I truly believe that they form the very essence of why cities are established, and why they thrive, prosper, and evolve.
My tasks involved researching data points on the cities of Johannesburg, Durban and Lagos. Upon deep diving into the project, I began to realise a lot of disparities and fundamental issues with regards to accessing data and information on cities, especially in developing countries in Africa. I discovered that there just weren’t many readily available and accessible data and information on health, internet access, safety, civic engagement, public space, fashion, sports, transit, and a whole lot of other indexes.
Something was fundamentally wrong at that stage, and I began to ask questions. How do we measure growth and development if there isn’t credible and readily available data? How can we ascertain current growth measures of cities especially in Africa, as well as effectively make projections for the future? How do we ensure we are truly making progress? These questions and much more were topmost on my mind at that point.
At the end of the research in which data was sourced on over 50 cities across the world, most African cities fell at the top bottom pile in terms of ratings and scoring. But, could it be that African cities didn’t measure well against their Western counterparts simply based on levels of development or technological advancement as many would have thought? Well, my conclusion based on my experience on the project was that even in cases and situations where African cities achieved considerable growth, there just wasn’t enough accessible and verifiable data to back this up as well as prove it.
This, therefore, was one of the reasons which sparked my interest in developing the capacity to effectively use data, monitoring and evaluation to show impact and growth, as well as focus on the intersection of data and development. I strongly believe that if we must position cities in Africa as players in the global development arena, we must begin to pay close attention to data, monitoring, as well as evaluation.
Lessons learned from this experience show the discrepancies that exist in rating systems globally, especially as it pertains to measuring developing countries against their western counterparts. During the research project which I mentioned earlier, my other research colleagues who worked on sourcing data for developed cities found it relatively easy and accessible to reach data due to the record and data keeping culture that exists in those societies. While researchers working on developing cities found it difficult to access information which ought to be readily available, as well as accessible.
I believe that more needs to be done around building a data and evidence-based culture and approach in developing countries, and we also need concerted efforts to establish more research think tanks through which information can be accessed. Also, governments in developing countries need to focus more on a data-driven approach to planning programs, projects, and initiatives for the populace, as this is the only means through which development can be tracked, measured and improved on.