Data revolution: The role of private sector, citizens and government

People look at multiple screens displaying road maps and visuals of street traffic from different cities around the world. Data can provide valuable insights for territorial development, urban planning, public transport optimization, public health and more. Photo by: kris krüg / CC BY-NC-ND

We’ve been told the data revolution is already happening thanks to a flood of data, overflowing out of every interstice of our digital society. But, so far at least, the revolution has not been evenly distributed. Although attempts have been made to make the most of information extracted from the web, all that is mined is not gold when it comes to designing public policies.

The trace on the web (mostly in terms of social media) might not be the most insightful source of information to describe and inform the needs of the most deprived populations, nor to create and implement growth-enhancing policies. The data we need is somewhat more difficult to gain access to.

Insightful and unexploited data exists, but is not accessible

Beyond the web, we need data that describes people’s activities within the physical, analog world: how people live, how they move around, how they interact, and so on. We need more frequent and granular data on people’s wealth, their activities, transactions, mobility, social ties, and more.

But all this information cannot be harvested on the World Wide Web; not all data is open data, after all. That most insightful data may remain hidden, most of the time, and largely unexploited within private sector companies such as telecom and payment solution providers, retailers and satellite imagery producers. Using cellphone data as an example, Orange’s Data for Development Challenge has shown that it is possible to forecast the spread of epidemics, and to evaluate wealth, internal migration and population density, people’s social and professional networks, and more.

All this data provides valuable insights for territorial development, urban planning, public transport optimization, public health, etc. As an experimental exercise, Agence Française de Développement has partnered with Orange and the Executive Council for Urban Transportation in Dakar, Senegal, to improve public transport in the capital city.

But how can experiments be transformed into a day-to-day routine? How can the data we all contribute towards generating — but that we do not individually own — be leveraged? And even if we did own such data, would it really provide value beyond the sum of its parts?

Since the launch of the United Nations report on the data revolution, “A World That Counts,” almost two years have passed. And yet, we are waiting for sustainable solutions to benefit from insightful information coming from our ultraconnected society.

Public-private-people partnerships for data

Many issues still need to be addressed to set up a safe mechanism for sharing private sector data to overcome the fear of strategic information leaks — which could inform competitors, to address the fear of citizens to see their data used against them; or to create incentives on the donor side (for many donors that support these projects, for example, it is still not considered “sexy” to finance the production of statistics) or for data philanthropists to continue to share their data.

Ultimately, a successful implementation of such projects supporting “data for good” would require a real step-change and an appropriation of the data from their beneficiaries — national statistics offices, citizens, startups, etc. Human capital and data-savviness are crucial to harnessing the benefits this revolution could bring with it.

Meanwhile, the context is changing too. The “open data movement” is already modifying the approach to data and initiatives, such as the Open Government Partnership creating incentives for civil society, private sector entities and governments to nurture the data revolution. Together with donors, such actors are currently building innovative partnerships to foster the use of private sector data.

Examples include the World Bank working with the European Space Agency, which decided to open up access to its satellite imagery to help with the evaluation of a project at the bank. And in France, AFD is currently developing a partnership with Orange, MIT media Lab and Data-Pop Alliance to foster the use of private sector data for policy making. The Open Algorithm — OPAL project will take stock of the previous attempts to set up a standard for sharing big data-based indicators, without endangering companies or citizens’ interests and instead supporting the emergence of a startup ecosystem and promoting data literacy.

The data revolution won’t happen without private sector involvement and appropriation of administrations and citizens. AFD’s role as a donor is to facilitate the dialogue on data and provide the kick-off funding that will make the revolution happen. To be able to reach a critical mass and institutionalize data sharing for monitoring and planning development, we need more companies to get involved, but also more funding from governments, both in the “developed” and “developing” world.

With potential to change the trajectory of crises, such as famines or the spread of diseases, the innovative use of data will drive a new era for global development. Throughout this monthlong Data Driven discussion, Devex and partners — the Agence Française de Développement, BroadReach, Chemonics and Johnson & Johnson — will explore how the data revolution is changing our approach to achieving development outcomes and reshaping the future of our industry. Help us drive the conversation forward by tagging #DataDriven and @devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Thomas Roca

    Thomas Roca is a researcher and statistician at the French Development Agency. Thomas is developing AFD’s research program covering well-being, human development and alternative welfare indicators, including Big Data for Development. Thomas’s field of work covers also data visualization and programming and he is developing AFD’s data visualization Web portal called AFD Country Dashboard.