As the Festival de Datos gets underway in Uruguay this week, hundreds of government officials, civil society leaders, academics, and policy-makers are gathering to take stock of the data for development agenda. By design, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have long held close ties to the UN data revolution, a movement aiming to leverage our ever-increasing access to data, and acknowledging the huge potential of that data to act as a source for good, informing and transforming society and protecting the environment.
Yet, since the data revolution was launched in 2015, we have increasingly seen fundamental challenges take the fore around power, privacy, and participation. This year’s explosion in the oft-questionable use of data in fueling innovation in emerging technology, most notably in generative AI, has accelerated the need to confront the potential threats of data misuse, particularly in countries with closed and closing civic spaces. As trust in institutions sags globally, with it, trust in those institutions to use data safely and effectively suffers. This deficit of trust is occurring at a time when there is more data and more technological innovation than ever before, and therefore more opportunity for misuse – intentional or otherwise.
DG has long believed in harnessing the power of data and technology to drive progress toward a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous world. But in order to live up to these promises, we must work together for a fair data future, one that supports people in how they are represented in data and includes those who have long been left out altogether. Fully distilled, the original promise of the data revolution can only be realized within a culture of trust.
Trust is the foundation for – and can be the result of – good data governance, data sharing, and data use. My colleague Kristin Lord, the CEO of our partner organization IREX, writes that trust is the basis of all effective relationships, and this is no less true when it comes to the use of data and technology. A high-trust ecosystem provides the conditions in which good data governance, efficient data sharing, and responsible and impactful data use can flourish.
When it comes to data governance systems, trust serves as the foundation and the mortar, underpinning the successful implementation and broad acceptance of these systems, and bridging the needs and interests of different constituencies. People need assurance that their data will be handled responsibly, ethically, and securely, and this is especially important in our broader culture of data misuse and faulty protections by private entities and governments alike. A robust data governance framework that prioritizes transparency, enforceable accountability, and explicit data protection fosters this trust. Public trust in data governance not only ensures compliance with regulations but also encourages participation in data collection efforts, thereby enhancing the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the data. Ultimately, this trust forms the basis for the effective use of data by organizations and governments alike to address societal challenges and support sustainable development efforts.
Trust is also required to “create the conditions to create.” The use of digital technology has exploded and innovation in this field continues to grow. So as we face new issues with data, particularly with the advent of frontier AI, and other new technology, building trust is essential.
Institutionalized transparency + accountability (including credible and enforceable data governance systems and policies). In an era where information is a source of power, the open and transparent governance of data is crucial to foster public confidence and trust. Further, we can reinforce this trust by having clear and credible mechanisms for holding entities accountable for their actions and decisions, ensuring they are answerable for any misuse or breaches of data. Establishing strong transparency and accountability not only mitigates risks but also encourages user engagement and confidence, laying the foundation for sustainable relationships and positive societal impact.
Inclusive, participatory processes that give people the ability to effect change. People deserve a say in data design and collection that impacts them. Despite considerable progress over the years, whole groups of people are not being counted and their exclusion prevents a fair and equitable approach to data-informed decision making. Ultimately, active participation not only enhances the quality and relevance of the data collected, but also ensures that it’s put to use responding to people’s direct needs.
For instance, in our Data on Youth and Tobacco in Africa project, DG is working on filling the data gaps on adolescent tobacco use, and particularly focusing on groups that have not been counted in the past, like out-of-school youth and girls.
Demonstrating genuine value from data. Kristin Lord rightfully pointed out that “the surest path to trust is for institutions to do their jobs well and provide real value to citizens.” There is still a lot of work to be done here when it comes to ensuring projects are designed with the people most affected in mind, and even more so in establishing a clear linkage between data and impacts that improve lives. Establishing clear causal pathways and impact metrics, and ensuring that projects are held accountable to the impact they promise, remains an important area of growth. When our projects rely on public participation to ensure that tools and solutions are designed for people’s needs, we owe these collaborators proof of delivery if we want them to trust us as partners in the future.
The United Nations’ 2023 Hangzhou Declaration communicated a renewed commitment, revitalized energy, and accelerated action to ensure that high-quality, timely, open, and inclusive data are the heart of realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This week, let’s realign on goals and recall that data needs to serve everyone, and getting it right can empower us to use information to solve society’s problems, rather than create new ones. By building a stronger culture of trust and cooperation, we can uphold the promise of the data revolution and transform our world for the better.