WASHINGTON, USA – The World Bank is calling for strengthened national data systems in order to realize the full potential of the data revolution to transform the lives of poor people.
From information gathered in household surveys to pixels captured by satellite images, data can inform policies and spur economic activity, serving as a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. More data is available today than ever before, yet its value is largely untapped, according to the new World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives. Data is also a double-edged sword, requiring a social contract that builds trust by protecting people against misuse and harm, and work toward equal access and representation.
“Data offer tremendous potential to create value by improving program and policies, driving economies, and empowering citizens. The perspective of poor people has largely been absent from the global debate on data governance and urgently needs to be heard,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “Lower-income countries are too often disadvantaged due to a lack of institutions, decision-making autonomy, and financial resources, all of which hold back their effective implementation and effectiveness of data systems and governance frameworks. International cooperation is needed to harmonize regulations and coordinate policies so that the value of data is harnessed to benefit all, and to inform efforts toward a green, resilient and inclusive recovery.”
Data collected for public or commercial purposes, by traditional or modern methods, is being used, combined, and reused in ways that deliver benefits to more people and provide information with greater accuracy.
Better data are enhancing governments’ abilities to set priorities and target resources more efficiently. In Kenya, for example, social media, mobile phone data, and digitized official reports of traffic accidents in Nairobi identified the most dangerous roads, leading to road safety improvements to save lives. The private sector is using data to power platform-based businesses that boost economic growth and generate international trade in services. In Haiti, technology has helped mango farmers track their produce through to final sale, eliminating many intermediaries, letting them keep more of their profits.
Innovative data methods are also empowering people to make better decisions leading to public service improvements. In India’s Tamil Nadu state, tools were developed with World Bank support to address data literacy challenges, enabling residents to express preferences in ways that could be readily digitized, guiding community discussions to set priorities.
“Combining data from multiple sources can advance evidence-based policymaking through more precise and timely statistics,” said World Bank Group Chief Economist Carmen Reinhart. “The adverse effects of COVID-19 have been felt unequally, and innovative uses of data offer new opportunities to understand its spread, assess policies to mitigate it, and target government resources to the people most in need.”
COVID-19 has dramatically highlighted opportunities and challenges associated with newfound uses of data. Countries have repurposed mobile phone data to monitor the virus – but have had to provide protection against harmful misuse of such data. The abrupt shift to virtual work has also exposed a digital divide between those with access to technology and those without, serving as a reminder of the need to work toward equitable access to mobile phones and the internet for the poor and for low-income countries. Virus containment has hindered basic data collection in numerous countries, underscoring the need for investments in infrastructure, data systems and statistical capacity.
However, the more data is used, the greater the potential for misuse. Careful design of regulations to strengthen cybersecurity and protect personal data is essential to engender trust. In a global survey of 80 countries, only 40 percent had provisions for best-practice data regulations, including fewer than one-third of low-income countries, although many are now beginning to adopt them.
For all of data’s potential for development, the benefits of the global data system are, for now, skewed to the better off. Improved representation in, and access to, data for marginalized people is a priority. Digital connectivity is low in Sub-Saharan Africa, and modern infrastructure in low-income countries for exchanging, storing, and processing data is negligible. Lower-income countries also find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to harnessing the economic benefits of data platform businesses.
The report acknowledges the wide range of views related to data, and an uncertain policy environment. To reap data’s full benefits and create opportunities for all, renewed efforts are required to improve data governance domestically, as well as through closer international cooperation. The cost of inaction is high, leading to missed opportunities and greater inequities. Forging a new social contract for data—one grounded in principles of value, trust, and equity—will ultimately make the difference.