By Thembumenzi Dlamini
Access to data in Eswatini continues to be a critical challenge, particularly getting real time or high frequency data.
Most of the time, a data collector finds themselves straddled between a rock and hard place, as data sharing is not taken seriously in this country and perhaps also not appreciated by many individuals and organisations.
Yet data is the lifeline of many institutions as it provides the necessary information to improve their daily activities. Data feeds into research activities to generate new knowledge, which in turn, can lead to significant advancements in business, industry, and the economy at large.
Data availability is necessary for businesses and policy analysts to conduct robust research processes to improve performance and productivity, as well as the effectiveness of government strategies and policies. Despite these benefits, accessibility to data remains a challenge, especially for enumerators collecting data through surveys and interviews.
The life of a data collector can be a strenuous one in Eswatini. Often, when a data collector engages with individuals and organisations to fill out surveys on different research projects, they meet with resistance, negative comments, put on ice, or sent on a wild goose chase until they give up completely.
Others just keep them at bay with empty promises meant to delay the data collection process until the timelines of the research project elapse. While some respondents refuse to participate without prior appointment, which makes sense, others fail to keep their initial appointments with the data collectors even after all the necessary arrangements are made. Some of those who do finally participate give vague answers or underestimate values, which renders the data collected unusable.
Nevertheless, some dependable individuals and organisations appreciate the value of data and research. They are always ready to fill out surveys or participate in interviews necessary to generate knowledge.
Appreciating the value of data
It is true that data collection can be a tedious and time-consuming process; however, it is one of those necessary inconveniences that must be embraced for Eswatini to do better in developing the different sectors of its economy.
For example, to help catapult social and economic development in Eswatini so that the country can achieve its first world status by 2022, households, the private and public sectors, and non-governmental organisations need to be more open about data sharing for better targeted planning, programming, and implementation of the National Development Strategy (NDS) and related policies.
The devil is in the details, so it is only through data that development practitioners can know what works and what does not work. The evaluation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) uses data, which has led to the establishment of a data ecosystem.
The ecosystem is a concept that recognises the importance and indispensable merging of official and unofficial statistics, innovations, knowledge and information for the attainment of the sustainable development goals. Therefore, it is of great importance that individuals, communities, organisations, and governments participate in data sharing particularly because it can help with effective policy formulation.
Your data is protected
Many fear that sharing data with researchers is some form of investigation and that their personal information may be misused. However, research organisations that appreciate data as a key ingredient for generating new knowledge abide by research ethics that guarantee the protection of data and the confidentiality of respondents’ information.
Before participating in research projects/data collection exercises, it is important for respondents to know their rights. At the very least, data collectors should provide a summary of the research assignment and have a written formal letter of consent with the name and contact details of the institution commissioning the study.
In other words, before participating or giving out information, respondents should make sure they are fully informed about the purpose of the data collection process before giving out data. The consent letter should include a confidentiality clause explaining how the data will be used and how respondents’ privacy will be protected.
In case the data holders breach the agreement, the respondent has a right to take up the matter with the relevant legal authorities. For instance, in the health sector, Eswatini has a National Health Research Ethics Committee, which ensures that health research is carried out in an ethical manner that protects the privacy and dignity of the people and communities being studied.
Organisations conducting research are responsible for safe storage of data to protect participants’ information. The names and particulars of the people involved are kept confidential and cannot be mentioned in research reports. In short, research can and should be conducted in an ethical manner that protects the privacy of the individuals and organisations whose data is used for research and development of social and economic strategies in the country.
Data sharing policies
The United Kingdom is among the pioneers in data sharing policy development. In 2011, the Research Council of United Kingdom (RCUK) issued the “Common Principles on Data Policy”, which clearly sets the expectations for management and sharing of research data. Closer to home, South Africa has the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, which ensures that the rights of data collectors as well as those of respondents are protected.
Despite the consummate benefits of data sharing, there are no policies that compel individuals and organisations to share their data for research purposes in Eswatini. There is a need for government to develop comprehensive data sharing policies to ensure that individuals and organisations in their different jurisdictions participate in data sharing, especially for research work that will contribute to economic development.
Understanding and addressing issues within the research community that inhibit data sharing will be key during the formulation of data sharing policies. While data should be made available to improve policy analysis and research in Eswatini, the data sharing policies and structures should also support increased public access to research publications and knowledge dissemination.
There is no silver bullet; naturally, people are hesitant and unyielding when it comes to sharing information/data. However, there is clearly a need for the academic community, research institutions, publishers, and the nation to work together to develop data-sharing standards and best practices.
There is also a need to encourage the use of existing repositories such as the Central Statistical Office (CSO) to make more data available for development purposes. Through campaigns and raising awareness, the public needs to be sensitised on the importance of data sharing for the country’s development.
Individuals and organisations should consider sharing data as their social responsibility that can see Eswatini accelerate scientific discovery and innovation going forward. Without data, the country cannot implement its various developmental goals. Consumers and organisations should seriously consider participating in data sharing to improve the implementation of Eswatini’s development agenda.