Published on Digital Development

Unraveling data’s Gordian knot: 5 pillars to support ‘Data for Better Lives’

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Unraveling Data's Gardian Knot
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The World Bank’s new report on trusted data-sharing offers a framework for maximizing data use by governments, businesses, and individuals while bolstering data protection and individual rights over their personal data.

Amongst themes explored in the World Bank’s recently launched World Development Report 2021, Data for Better Lives, is that data collected for one purpose has the potential to generate economic and social value in applications far beyond those originally anticipated and far beyond what is currently enjoyed. 

This suggests tremendous development potential for a new, data-driven economy that can catalyze inclusive growth, improve public services, and empower small businesses and individuals. For disadvantaged groups in particular, being “data rich” can be uniquely empowering: Personal data histories like transaction records are helping demonstrate creditworthiness and, even more profoundly, they can equip previously marginalized individuals with an intangible asset to prove who they are and better their lives. 

However, the WDR also points out that there are persistent barriers to realizing this potential ranging from incompatible systems to lack of trust. A central tenet is that there is an evolving social contract around data that is based on trusted use and reuse of data; trust is comprised of set of enablers and safeguards governed by competent and multi-stakeholder institutions. As the World Bank continues to invest in digital for development, it is critical to focus on enablers and safeguards for data sharing that will ensure data becomes a lever of inclusive development and not a tool to consolidate economic gains and social control. 

Trusted Data Sharing Practices

The report, Unraveling Data’s Gordian Knot, explores in more detail some of the themes identified in the WDR and, through case studies, examines how countries around the world are navigating complex data governance choices to ensure data use is more equitable while also bolstering data protection and individual rights. These practices include:

  • Policies, laws, and regulations that define rights and obligations over data, including the rights of people to determine when and how personal data is collected, shared, and used. These have been advanced through a rights-based approach to protecting personal data as well as through iterative policymaking that continuously calibrates between sharing data and security for non-personal data.
  • Robust institutions capable of oversight and enforcement while also offering citizens effective redress, supported by strong coordinating bodies within government (e.g. Uruguay) and appropriate capabilities within institutions.
  • Trusted technical architecture to standardize data while giving individuals more agency over their data, enabled by platforms that break down silos and create accountability (e.g. Singapore’s digital watermarks) and transparency (e.g. Estonia’s State portal).
  • Capabilities inside and alongside government advanced through cross-training policymakers and technologists (e.g. Singapore) and embedding technical expertise across government ministries (e.g. Mauritius) in order implement data governance strategies across government. 
  •  Active civil society and informed populace who keep governments and companies accountable, supported by sustained digital literacy programs and by multi-stakeholder processes to develop data policies (e.g. Mexico).  

When designed and implemented well, these practices support an ecosystem in which data sharing and protection become mutually reinforcing.  That said, all countries continue to grapple with technological advances and with changes in individual expectations regarding their data. These phenomena continue to evolve rapidly posing challenges to adapting them to the individual country context — there is no one-size-fits-all approach.  


Importantly, using the case study methodology, Unraveling Data’s Gordian Knot not only  gives shape to what is needed but also  surfaces how governments are implementing these practices. The case studies cast light on three main themes:

  1. Whole-of-government data governance: Governments increasingly acknowledge that data protection and sharing must be complementary.  In Singapore, the recent focus on data security has not constrained data sharing but rather increased trust, enabling data to flow more freely to improve public services. In Uruguay, consolidating public sector authorities for data protection, data interoperability, and open government in one entity accelerated the country’s digital transformation.
  2. Inclusive policymaking: Trusted data ecosystems require iterative policymaking. Models are now emerging that offer opportunities for learning and experimentation, e.g. regulatory sandboxes. To iterate in ways that work for all, policymaking processes must represent diverse voices from across sectors. 
  3. Connecting policy action with use cases: Like other cross-sectoral efforts, trusted data sharing solutions not only require political leadership but also specific use cases to mobilize stakeholders. 

As countries around the world continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of effective data sharing has never been more apparent.  Data for health diagnostics, detection, and prediction are critically important for responding to this crisis, and the global nature of the virus requires data to be shared across sectors and across borders. Yet, as new data sharing models emerge, we are seeing in real time threats to digital privacy, data vulnerabilities, and capacity gaps in data usage.

In this extraordinary moment — when the use of personal data for helping society is coming into conflict with data protection norms — the World Bank is committed to supporting our client governments in solidifying a trusted data sharing ecosystem that unlocks data for socioeconomic benefit while also bolstering data protection and individual rights over their personal data. 

Please join us for a panel discussion on May 17, 2021, for the release of the report, Unraveling Data’s Gordian’s Knot: Enablers and Safeguards for Data Sharing in the New Economy. This discussion, with leaders from countries and companies around the globe, will explore a central premise that data-sharing and use is of critical importance to realizing the development potential of data and ensuring diverse stakeholders benefit. We hope to explore the limits of data-sharing/use and which safeguards are ensuring people have trust and agency in the data economy. To RSVP, click here.


Boutheina Guermazi

Director for Regional Integration for Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa, World Bank

Vyjayanti T Desai

Practice Manager, ID4D and G2Px

Jonathan Dolan

Research Lead — Future State

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