In my previous work where I learned about systemic risks, I often came across Aristotle’s famous words:“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. It sounds quite elementary: the parts make up a whole. But looking at it more critically, the whole is more than simply adding the parts together, because in the act of combining, they don’t simply stack up. Oftentimes, their effects are amplified and compounded by the relationships between the parts. It is how the parts interact with each other that bring down or lift up the whole. During the pandemic, what I have seen is that despite the distance, we (the parts of the whole), have placed a lot more emphasis on how we are “being” together.
At WeSolve, we spend a lot of time listening to stories — a kind of listening that sparks learning and hope. We listen to understand the role each member of an ecosystem can play, and how together their disjointed puzzle pieces can come together to paint a picture of what a more just and equitable world should look like. We spend a lot of time listening and engaging because we believe our role as researchers is not to know the answer to the problem, but to surface the solutions and possibilities that people who are living the problem already know and weave them together
Recently, we launched a report advocating for an alliance for data empowerment, something that we initially thought was a technical paper exploring structural barriers and opportunities in data access. But as posited in our report ,“ the work of data for empowerment therefore is not merely technical; it must be rooted in community organizing and must foster trust”.
“ The work of data for empowerment therefore is not merely technical; it must be rooted in community organizing and must foster trust.”
On one side, we have data scientists who are eagerly looking for data to process and analyze; on the other, government agencies with voluminous amounts of data but lack the capacity to generate insights from it; somewhere in between were dozens of promising initiatives to improve access to quality government data.
In the beginning, they all seemed like scattered dots – similar to the pixels on our computer screen, they don’t make sense when you’re looking too close. When zoomed out, we start to see a high-resolution picture of what is possible.
But it’s not enough to just see possibilities, we need to identify areas where people can work together and facilitate that coming together. Collaboration does not always arise naturally. For example, even if government agencies need help in data analytics, there are many barriers due to concerns over data accuracy and privacy. Meanwhile, civil society actors may see government’s unwillingness to share as an effort to conceal corruption, when in reality they are mostly just under-staffed and overwhelmed.
To transform the system, we don’t just need laws, new computers and training programs (although these are very important), we also focus on the relationships between people in the system. When we do this, solutions organically grow together.
To put our theory and research into action, we gathered government officials, civil society practitioners and academic researchers involved in data work into an alliance. What we saw looked like magic: strangers became potential colleagues who shared similar interests and the same vision for the country. These kinds of discussions can be one concrete way to connect the scattered dots. This is the magic that can happen when the relationships between the parts of the whole are positive and collaborative, rather than zero-sum and predatory.
Without spaces to discuss challenges and discover areas for collaboration, they will likely continue to work on their own. For the sake of convenience, people may choose to work in silos rather than undergoing dialogue. Yes, they can still address certain problems, but alone their impact is limited. However, if we work as a whole, our collective action can lead to greater outcomes than the sum of our isolated and individual actions. As we continue the dialogue for the Data for Empowerment Alliance, I am very excited to witness these greater outcomes of our collective work.
Daniel Benito is a junior associate in Wesolve. He is a mathematician, instructor, and research analyst. Passionate about the power of data, Daniel’s research involves quantitative studies in finance, economics and health.