World Development Report 2021: DATA FOR BETTER LIVES

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Today’s unprecedented growth of data and their ubiquity in our lives are signs that the data revolution is transforming the world. And yet much of the value of data remains untapped. Data collected for one purpose have the potential to generate economic and social value in applications far beyond those originally anticipated. But many barriers stand in the way, ranging from misaligned incentives and incompatible data systems to a fundamental lack of trust. World Development Report 2021: Data for Better Lives explores the tremendous potential of the changing data landscape to improve the lives of poor people, while also acknowledging its potential to open back doors that can harm individuals, businesses, and societies. 

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Main Messages

  • Forge a new social contract for data. For data to realize its potential to transform lives, new rules of the road are needed - a social contract for data is needed. Such a contract would enable the use and reuse of data to create economic and social value, while ensuring equitable access to the value realized, as well as fostering participants’ trust that they will not be harmed by data misuse. Renewed efforts are required to improve data governance domestically, as well as through closer international cooperation. Moreover, the voice of low-income countries needs to be heard in the global debate on data governance.

  •  Increase data use and reuse to realize greater value. Using data for one purpose does not diminish their value. Increasing access to more users through open data, interoperability standards and data sharing initiatives, for example, increases the potential of data for positive development impacts. Much of the recent explosion in new data has stemmed from digitization of firm operations. Combining these data with traditional sources such as censuses, national surveys, government administrative data, and data produced by civil society organizations could help fill data gaps, provide timelier and finer-scale assessments of programs and policies, and serve public policy needs. Realizing this increased value calls for changing both mindsets and frameworks guiding data use. 

  •  Create more equitable access to the benefits of data. Major inequities in the ability to produce, utilize, and profit from data can be found across both rich and poor countries and among the rich and poor people within them. Data systems for public and private intent data alike tend to exclude poor people, and statistical capacity and data literacy remain limited in poor countries. Many lower-income countries lack the data infrastructure needed to speedily exchange their own data traffic over the internet and secure cost-effective access to modern data storage and cloud computing facilities. Their small economic size also limits the availability of data for machine learning and constrains the development of home-grown platform businesses that could be globally competitive. Efforts to improve the fairness of the global data system need to address both types of inequities. 

  •  Foster trust through safeguards that protect people from the harm of data misuse. The more data are reused, the greater is the risk of data misuse. This risk is evident in growing concerns about cybercrime and the potential for politically or commercially motivated surveillance. The scope for discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, race, gender, disability status, or sexual orientation may be further exacerbated by the growing use of algorithms. Addressing these concerns calls for the regulation of personal data grounded in a human rights framework, supported by policies that secure both people and the data systems on which they depend. 

  •  Work toward an integrated national data system (INDS). Although a new social contract can rebalance and reset the rules of the game for data governance, implementation of this vision further calls for an INDS that allows the flow of data among a wide array of users in a way that facilitates safe use and reuse of data. A well-functioning INDS explicitly builds data production, protection, exchange, and use into planning and decision-making and actively integrates the various stakeholders—individuals, civil society, academia, and the public and private sectors— into the data life cycle and into the governance structures of the system. Achieving a well-functioning INDS requires proper financing and incentives to produce, protect, and share data. Greater investment in physical and human capital is needed to improve data governance, specialized analytical and data security skills, as well as data literacy of the general public. Dependent on starting points, countries will need to work gradually toward this goal. 

In Depth

Part 3. Moving toward an integrated national data system