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FEATURE STORY March 24, 2021

New social contract for data needed to transform the lives of the poor


In Odissa, investments in weather forecast data and disaster response are helping to save lives from natural disasters

Photo Credit: The World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR)

When a devastating cyclone ripped through India’s Odisha State in 2013, nearly 1 million people were evacuated to safety. Loss of life, while tragic, was limited to 38 – a marked difference from a similarly powerful storm 14 years earlier that caused almost 10,000 fatalities. What made the difference? The state’s Disaster Management Authority had invested in weather forecast data and disaster response measures, which contributed to saving thousands of lives.

Odisha’s early warning system illustrates how data can be a powerful weapon in the fight against poverty. Having critical data can help policymakers set priorities, target resources, and improve decision-making. For citizens, it can help deliver better services, spur economic growth and job creation, improve road safety and boost productivity for small firms.

World Development Report (WDR) 2021 - Data for Better Lives provides a comprehensive overview of the implications of the data revolution for economic development, especially poor and vulnerable people, and offers recommendations on how data can deliver social and economic value in a secure, ethical, and equitable way.

Creative use and reuse of data can help realize the full potential of data

More data is available today than ever before from information gathered in household surveys, to pixels captured by satellite images, to mobile phone records. While data has delivered progress on many fronts, much more can be done to realize its full value. With the digitization of data, combining public and private data from traditional and new sources creatively can deliver value for purposes beyond initial intent.

In Kenya, for example, repurposing private intent traffic data is helping make roads safe. A big data analytical approach, combining data from social media, cell phone data, and digitized official reports of traffic accidents in Nairobi found that 5 percent of roads account for 50 percent of road deaths in the city, informing road safety measures to save lives.


By combining police reports and crowdsourced data, researchers were able to identify the 5 percent of roads where half od the crashes occur in Nairobi. Source: Milusheva et al. 2020.

Red dots indicate crashes geolocated from police situation reports. Blue dots indicate crashes identified by crowdsourced reports that were geolocated and clustered into individual crashes. Data shown are for July 2017–July 2018.

One of the key benefits of combining public and private data is providing real-time and finer-scale insights, enabling more effective public intervention. These synergies have tremendous potential to solve important social and economic problems and help improve the lives of the poor, such as greater access to financial and health care services, improved crop yields in low-income countries, and timelier and more accurate poverty maps.

The private sector's role in collecting and using digital data has grown, opening new areas of economic activity. The private sector uses data to power platform-based business models, helping buyers and sellers reach new markets and providing greater participation for those who otherwise would be excluded. These digital platforms are boosting economic growth and generating international trade in services. For example, in Haiti, blockchain technology is enabling mango farmers to keep more of their profits by tracking their produce until the final sale to retailers, allowing them to receive direct payments with fewer intermediaries.

Data can be a double-edged sword

The report recognizes that on the one hand, the more data is reused, shared, and repurposed, the higher the value that can be created. On the other hand, data accumulation can lead to the concentration of economic and political power, raising the possibility that data may be misused in ways that harm citizens.

“Realizing the potential benefits of data requires that data is used and reused more often, that more people have access to data and share their data in a trust environment that protects against misuse and harm” said Robert Cull, WDR 2021 co-director. “Without trust, people will not participate, but at the same time, the opportunities that data creates should be accessible to all people in all countries, and not just confined to a few.”

In Canada, Joyce Murray, Minister of Digital Government, says part of her role is to harness the power of data, making government services more accessible for all. “Our government is focused on encouraging the responsible use of data, and we’ve been working with domestic and international partners to develop common sense approaches to how we govern data and responsibly regulate it.”

As the world battles COVID-19, data's value and potential impact, the opportunities it presents, and the challenges it faces, have become all the more evident. Data collected through mobile phones, such as call detail records (CDR) and GPS location data, help measure the effectiveness of policies to contain the coronavirus, making it possible to better target interventions and policy responses. But at the same time, countries are struggling to balance the benefits against the risk of misuse, underscoring the importance of a regulatory environment that builds trust in data systems.

With the acceleration of virtual work, business, and interaction, the pandemic has exposed the digital divide between those who have access to, and use, the internet or cell phones, and those who do not. Primary data collection efforts in many countries as part of virus containment measures have been disrupted by the pandemic, signaling the need to invest in infrastructure and statistical capacity.

For all of data’s development potential, the benefits of data are, for now, skewed towards the better-off. Lack of internet coverage, access to devices, and infrastructure for exchanging, storing, and processing data excludes them from participating in the data economy. More broadly, lower income countries find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to creating and benefiting from data platform businesses.

Social Contract

To achieve the full benefits of data while addressing the risks, the report calls for a social contract that puts people at the center – one that protects people from harm, ensures equal access and representation, and creates value. To this end, the report emphasizes the need to build trust with robust infrastructure, policy, rules, and regulations around data, while prioritizing improved representation in, and access to, data for marginalized people.

“Countries need to build better data systems to increase access to more users – unused data has no value” said Dean Jolliffe, co-director, WDR 2021. “Investing in data literacy is also essential; combining access with data skills unleashes data’s potential to help people make better decisions and empower them to monitor programs and policies that affect their lives.”

"We need citizens to be able to understand, critically reflect, and eventually use this data to build more open, sustainable and fair societies," said Fabrizio Scrollini, Executive Director of ILDA (Latin American Initiative for Open Data).  He is encouraged by the way data is helping to address challenges from violence against women to health system reforms in Latin America. "But data alone won't be enough."

The report offers examples of approaches to achieving this social contract. For instance, Uruguay has made government-wide adoption of digital technology a priority for over ten years. Government agencies and the private sector have coordinated to develop systems, laws, and infrastructure to adopt and use digital technology widely. Estonia has created a national data system, X Road, which allows public and private databases to automatically exchange information, ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and interoperability among the different stakeholders.

“It’s time for a new social contract on data – one founded on principles of value, trust and equity – to make sure that data brings benefits, for all, while protecting against harm,” said Vivien Foster, co-director, WDR 2021. “Yet the social contract is not a one-size-fits-all; countries require local approaches to manage how data is shared, used, and reused ethically and equitably within their borders. At the same time, a better social contract calls for deeper international collaboration around data governance. The cost of inaction would be too high.”

A critical aspect of international data-sharing governance is including the voice of low-income countries in the global conversation on the topic.

World Development Report 2021 - Data for Better Lives, is guided by a conceptual framework around collecting, producing, processing, and analyzing data to create social and economic value. The report acknowledges the wide range of views related to data, and the uncertain policy environment, but warns that 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 - is what will ultimately make the difference.