Big Data Can Drive SDGs With Improved Accountability and Transparency: A Question of Trust

03/23/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

This post is co-authored by Elaine Kubik

The United Nations (UN) Summit this September will coincide with the target deadline for realizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and will likely mark the beginning of a new global framework for international development - the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Emphasizing the urgency of models of economic development that are also socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable, the SDGs will include, if adopted, 17 goals and 169 targets. Strikingly, none explicitly mention the trustworthiness of politicians, individual political prestige or legitimacy of governance. Goal 16 calls for "effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels", and Goal 17 mentions "global partnership for sustainable development", but both avoid aspects of national leadership or political legitimacy.

The age of sustainable development, despite having big data including open government and open source models, still lacks goals for these types of policy inputs and tools for citizens to hold elected officials directly and consistently accountable. It is unacceptable and unsustainable that the "99%" essentially have to wait four or five years to hold elected officials accountable in any meaningful way. Will Brazilian voters have to wait for 2018's elections to hold elected-officials accountable for the colossal lack of leadership and planning for São Paulo's mega-drought? Icelanders did not wait for elections to hold their Prime-Minister accountable for the country's 2008 financial crisis: they assaulted the parliament, deposed him and convicted him. The fact that politicians and elected officials are to a very large extent assessed only during electoral cycles is antiquated and insufficient.

Political leaders are reluctant to adapt a big data approach for transparency. In developing countries, politicians argue assessments like the UN's human development index, OECD's instruments for promoting development, or the principle of humanitarian intervention (R2P) reflect Western values and lack relevance, contextualization and legitimacy. In wealthier OECD countries the absence of smart and ongoing performance-based indicators to hold politicians accountable paved the way to the criminal complicity between politics and the private sector in the build up of the 2008 financial crisis.

The disparity in international standards is atrocious and cannot simply be justified by principles of national sovereignty and independent jurisprudence. While in Germany two businessmen were convicted in 2011 for bribing Portuguese and Greek officials in the sell of submarines, in Portugal no one was even charged. Unacceptable! A globalized world needs common goals for political trustworthiness and legitimacy. Unfortunately the political ethical standards recently self-imposed by the Dutch Minister of Justice, Ivo Opstelten, when resigning for lack of transparency in his cabinet, are a rarity. Political prestige is an informal ordering principle in international affairs and big data can also be used to monitor and assess the extent to which it is grounded in trustworthiness.


Several useful international indicators have been developed for issues like state fragility, corruption, party systems, rule of law, and freedom. Yet no such global framework exists to assess individual political prestige, trustworthiness, legitimacy and decision making while respecting cultural idiosyncrasies.

The rise of big data can help build a framework, shifting away from macro-analysis and demographics to individualized targeting. Open source data along with open government data has allowed computational modeling, predictive analytics, knowledge management and data mining - forcing politicians to now face a world where they can see exactly each person they are accountable to; thus opening the door to a new wave of individual scrutiny, oversight and accountability.

The theoretical and conceptual basis for metrics of individual political prestige and trustworthiness can be found in Huntington's emphasis on the primacy of political leadership for institutional development; Fukuyama's focus on recognition and prestige as engines of human history and advancement; and Sachs' proposed good governance SDG. In addition, Weber offers a first set of criteria for which politicians should be held accountable: (1) passion, a strong commitment to a cause that they seek to make come true; (2) judgment, the criteria to guide decision-making; and (3) responsibility, the value set. A related, but more specific list of accountability and trustworthiness indicators could include:

a) Technical and professional experience/preparedness. This indicator assumes trustworthiness as a function of relevant professional experience built upon solid technical training. Knewton's predictive analytics and adaptive learning technology could be applied to determine knowledge and skills gaps between candidates and the job the cabinets they are running for require.

b) Political maturity/skills. This indicator assumes trustworthiness as a function of political experience and/or active civic participation. Statistical predictions and scientific principles used by Next Big Sound combined with a framework for emotional intelligence could be used to further advance our understanding of the likeliness of political skills, prestige and trustworthiness.

c) Public interest, transparency and patriotism. This indicator assumes trustworthiness as a function of one's deep commitment with the wellbeing of his/her community and/or nation, and it implies that prestige is not compatible with conflicting personal or private interests. It is actually no surprise that Google has started to lead a path for political transparency, with their Civic Information API and resulting projects like Map Your Representatives to give insight into what causes representatives are truly acting on. A new "risk of impartiality/impediment" index for assessment of potential conflict of interests or an individualized "risk of corruption" index could be the next steps forward.

d) Commitment to the job and mandate. This indicator assumes trustworthiness as a function of how well elected officials perform their role; how much new legislation s/he helps advance; and how much s/he helps identify problems and design and implement new and better programs. The tracking implemented by the Sun Light Foundation updates citizens on bills, issues and even politicians' decisions could be expanded internationally and structured for comparative purposes within each country.

e) Consistency/coherence. This indicator assumes trustworthiness also as a function of how coherent, consistent and comprehensive a politician's line of action is. As exemplified by the Pulitzer winner Politifact new metrics such as a "Contradiction index" or a "Promise-keeping index" vis-à-vis individual's discourse, programs, actions and decisions made, are perfectly feasible.

f) Leadership/Charisma. This indicator assumes trustworthiness as a function of a personal profile and attitude capable of inspiring trust, and mobilizing attention and resources. Open source social networks have enabled adaptive learning tools to define online sentiment. The same tools can be used to examine candidate discussions and it's effectiveness in connecting with their audience. Real time crowdsourcing by citizens expressing life (un)satisfaction in their communities, similarly to what ingenious "digital humanitarians" do to support relief efforts worldwide, could help develop a collective and shared perspective of one's commitment to his/her political mandate and jurisdiction.

g) Resiliency/Conviction. This indicator assumes trustworthiness also as a function of how much the politician is capable of controlling psychological pressure, exhaustion, erosion of personal image, confrontation with media and public opinion. Discourse analysis and public polls, such the ones also developed by Popstar, are examples of good and useful metrics that could be expanded internationally.

None of these indicators are straightforward, almost all are subjective, dispersed in the WWW, and some may be too simple to measure a very complex phenomenon. Despite some OpenGov efforts, proprietary databases needed for these analyses are expensive, are often controlled by private platforms, and the equipment and expertise required to effectively use this type of data is not readily available. These are certainly challenges that need to be overcome if new information and communication technologies are to help citizens to appoint better and trustworthy decision-makers to office. In an ever globalized and interconnected world, political prestige and trustworthiness are attributes earned, obtained or denied in collective contexts. Big data, open sources and technological integration need to enable how the collective oversees and holds their representatives effectively accountable.

Elaine Kubik is a MPA-Development Practice candidate at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. She has a background in marketing and digital technology and is now applying it to policy and development. Follow her progress @elainekubik