The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Today, we can gather and aggregate data more easily than ever before, but how can we best harness the potential of this data to improve the lives of people and address the world’s most pressing challenges? Building the right systems will involve strengthening data infrastructure, making more data open, promoting data skills and fostering innovation. In supporting this effort and addressing new challenges around ethics, engagement and equity, global governance institutions will have a crucial role to play.

Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the landscape in which global governance institutions operate has changed. 

Today, we can gather and aggregate data more easily than at any time in history, whether it be data about people – such as population statistics – or the natural and built environment – such as weather patterns, crop yields and traffic information. This creates huge potential to improve the lives of citizens everywhere, a mandate that has generally been adopted primarily by global governance institutions.

To help solve today’s global challenges, however, we need to do more than publish this data. We must build a system that will use it to make more timely and informed decisions. To do this, the global governance community must focus on four key areas: strengthening data infrastructure, making more data open, promoting data skills and fostering innovation.

‘Data’ has become a widely used word, and its meaning is often unclear. We understand ‘data’ as any information about people, places and things across the world, existing in digital or other formats.

Data is an emerging infrastructure that all sectors of the economy increasingly rely on. It helps us make more informed, timely decisions as individuals, organizations and societies. 

Data should be like roads. Nations invest in roads to make them reliable and available to all. We connect road networks at local, national and global levels. We teach people the skills they need to use roads and take action if they drive badly. We develop a range of organizations to support the operations of road infrastructure, including transport planners, construction companies, driving instructors and traffic police. Data infrastructure is similar: it is not just the data but also the surrounding ecosystem that needs to be built and strengthened.

Data exists on a spectrum, from closed data (held within one organization), to data shared (between individuals or organizations), all the way to open data (available for anyone to access, use and share). The more people use a particular dataset, the more insights are generated from it, and the more impact it has. Therefore, the foundational data that has the potential to solve global challenges must be open.

Global institutions must recognize the opportunity to develop a robust data infrastructure, and the associated challenges of ethics, equity and engagement.

Open data is already yielding significant benefits in allowing us to map, monitor and respond to extreme events. When hurricanes recently wreaked havoc across the Caribbean, over 2,800 volunteers across the world added buildings to open mapping data on the platform OpenStreetMap. This allowed global aid organizations to conduct rapid damage assessments. Community initiatives are replicating similar projects to address localized issues, such as Dar Ramani Huria, which maps the areas within the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam that are most prone to flooding.

Global initiatives are emerging as awareness of data and its potential grows. The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, for example, focuses on maximizing data’s potential to tackle challenges like extreme poverty, climate change and epidemic disease. The International Aid Transparency Initiative and Open Contracting have developed standards for publishing international aid data and procurement data, so that it can better support decision making. 

To meet global challenges, institutions must also increase the number of people who can use data across all levels of their organizations. Open data is not a purely technical matter. We need to develop better data literacy for all, data science skills, and experience using data as a tool to solve problems.

After taking its first steps in building data infrastructure, the Tanzanian government worked with the Open Data Institute, the World Bank and the UK government to help build capability both in government and society. The government was then able to harness this initial support to build sustainable data initiatives that could improve the lives of its citizens.

Finally, the capacity to derive benefits from data infrastructure and data literacy depends on a culture of open innovation. 

In 2015, the UK Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) engaged external experts to show their public servants how opening data could enhance their current and future work. Roundtables were held with private sector and civil society stakeholders to find areas where they could collaborate. Through this open approach to innovation, Defra improved flood risk management and farming, saved money for researchers and campaigners, and strengthened relationships. In Mexico, the government worked with civic organizations and start ups, through an incubation program called Labora, to open data that could help them solve problems and create social and economic impact. 

While recognizing the potential of data, we must also identify challenges in how data can and is being used. Many governments and businesses sell or hoard data that should be either openly available or kept closed and private. This has led to a trust deficit between individuals and the organizations that handle data, and limits its effective use. It risks people and society withdrawing permission for data to be collected or used.

We face significant gaps in three areas that need to be addressed in order to build the necessary trust. First, we must ensure that data is collected, used and shared in an ethical way, considering potential unintended consequences from program design to delivery. Second, those holding data should support equitable access to and use of it. Finally, we must engage and empower citizens to have a say in how data is or isn’t used.

Over the next few years, there will be a growing need for existing, or new, global governance institutions to tackle these challenges.

International standards for data protection and open data evolved from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, principles like those developed by the OECD in 1980, and through pressure from international movements such as the Open Government Partnership. 

Reimagining what data access and protection rights are needed in the 21st century, fostering the necessary global agreements, and creating change through data infrastructure, skills and open innovation will take time, but it will be necessary for data to reach its full potential. Global institutions must recognize the opportunity to develop a robust data infrastructure, and the associated challenges of ethics, equity and engagement.

For this, they need to start with targeted aspects of global problems, and work with other global institutions, governments, businesses and civil society, to tackle them using data. Learning lessons, before scaling, is the best way to help everyone learn how to use data better.

Each day, data plays a vital role in helping individuals, businesses and governments make decisions. Now, global institutions must lead systemic change to solve global challenges through the possibilities it offers.

Peter Wells

Peter Wells is Head of Policy at the Open Data Institute. He works with governments and businesses around the world. Previously, Peter spent over 20 years in the telecommunications industry, worked in a voluntary role to organize an independent review of digital government policy for the UK Labour Party and experimented with creating a collaboratively maintained open address register.

Anna Scott

Anna is Head of Content at the Open Data Institute. She manages its brand and outputs across channels. Anna was previously a journalist at the Guardian, where she wrote and commissioned content on global development, and helped establish the Center for Global Development’s Europe office, working on policy outreach across programs.

Alex Leon

As Junior Consultant at the Open Data Institute, Alex works across a range of international projects, supporting open data initiatives across Europe and Africa with workshop design and facilitation as well as strategic communications advice.