Never again should it be possible to say ‘we didn’t know.’ No one should be invisible. This is the world we want – a world that counts.
UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert
Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, 2014
When it comes to the opportunity for data analytics to provide new insights and visibility on the challenges of sustainable development, the world is in a pre-dawn fog. Defined currently by its ambiguity and complexity, the global dialogue on the use of data is shaped by both hope and anxiety. While using data for positive socio-economic gain holds great promise, it is not a certainty. It is imperative to chart a course through this complexity to capture the development benefits that Big Data can bring.
However, the global narrative on the use of data for development is conflated and incoherent. Competing tensions on data control and ownership, limited technical understanding, the lack of coordination, shifting power dynamics and a lack of effective governance frameworks have conspired to hinder clarity of integrated goals and principles across different communities of interest. This report aims to help clarify some of these complexities to provide a more coherent path forward. Based on insights from a cross-disciplinary community of policy-makers and experts from industry, academia and civil society convened by the World Economic Forum, this report hopes to help clear some of the fog that is currently obscuring the vision of how Big Data might be used to address the challenges of sustainable development.
Priorities for Sustainable Data-Driven Development
- Commercial incentives and trusted agreements need to be established to enable access to data streams held by private actors.
- Shared policy frameworks, legal protections and impact assessments need to be developed to strengthen trustworthy data flows.
- Capacity building at the institutional, community, local and individual level needs to be strengthened.
- Individuals must be recognized as both producers and consumers of data with unique digital identities.
With a lens focused on identifying various stakeholder relationships, the hope is that new approaches for balancing competing tensions can be advanced. This report suggests that those tensions reflect underlying inequalities in access to data (and the resources, capacity and infrastructure to use the data), and a growing trust deficit that assumes the misuse of data.
To achieve the goals of sustainable development, it is important to build the legal, cultural, technological and economic infrastructures necessary to enable the balancing of competing interests. Balance will require addressing multiple concerns about the use of data and issues such as privacy, human rights, property rights, climate change and national security. The approaches will need to be meaningful, pragmatic, adaptive and proportional. With so much uncertainty, the need for continuous experimentation, learning and sharing is paramount. Investing in small-scale pilots that bring together the private sector, regulators, civil society and local communities will provide the insights and local knowledge critical for long-term resilience and adaptation.
So where to begin? How can all stakeholders work through the complexity and identify key points of focus for collective progress? Three areas are emerging as important starting points: addressing the data deficit, establishing resilient governance, and strengthening local capacities and knowledge regarding the individual and the community. As the report by the UN Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development states, “There is a need for showing how resources, actors, forms of collaboration and institutions can evolve, be managed and be deployed to make the data revolution a force for progress and for enhancing possibilities.1” The intent of this report is to support those aims.
From Complicated to Complex
Understanding the dynamics of complexity is critical for addressing the convoluted set of political, commercial, civil and technical issues surrounding the issue of Big Data for sustainable development.
Complex challenges differ from complicated ones. For example, an automobile is complicated. It has a variety of interconnected parts which deliver very reliable and predictable outcomes. Step on the gas and it moves. Hit the brakes and it stops.
But driving the car in traffic is complex. It requires constant adjustments and application of a dense body of collective norms, rules and coordinated actions among strangers. Social coordination renders complex environments safe and resilient.
When looking at the challenges confronting Data for Development, it is helpful to discern those challenges which are generally complicated from those which are complex. Many of the technical challenges surrounding the standards and technological tools of Big Data are complicated. They are difficult to address, but tractable and known.
The challenges surrounding the policies and rules of how data can and should be used are complex. Contextual and nuanced, the uncertainties of what defines an acceptable use of data are often fuelled by power dynamics, outdated policy frameworks, unclear ethics, cross-jurisdictional legal uncertainties and an underlying lack of trust among stakeholders.
Resolving these competing commercial, political and civil interests will require deep commitment and recognition of the right moment in time for enabling positive change.