We would like to hear from you: Launching online consultations for World Development Report 2021 – Data for Better Lives Concept Note


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A few months ago, we announced that the topic for the next World Development Report 2021 would be “Data,” and what it means for development. Since then, our ideas have evolved into a more comprehensive Concept Note on “Data for Better Lives”, which we are happy to release today for your feedback and comments. 

The value of data is largely untapped

The omnipresence of data in the daily lives of most people in the world gives rise and support to the view that data will change the world. With the unprecedented rate of data creation, and the increasing role data plays in most of our lives, it is easy to assume that the digital revolution could be the most important life-changing event of this era. And, as the world battles COVID-19, the value and potential development impact of data have become all the more evident. To reflect this, COVID-19 examples will be used throughout the report to illustrate many of the issues that will be discussed in the report.

But despite this unprecedented growth, much of the value of data is still untapped, waiting to be realized. Typically, data are collected by one party for one particular purpose. Yet, afterwards, it remains available for potential reuse that may generate economic value in different applications far beyond those originally anticipated. However, many barriers stand in the way of such beneficial reuse of data. These range from misaligned incentives, to disorganized and incompatible systems, to a fundamental lack of trust.

Along with the promise of amazing advances in the ways data can help development, also comes new concerns about personal data protection, surveillance, misinformation, attacks on data systems, and potential abuses of market power in data-based businesses. Through a discussion of the numerous pathways in which data can help economic development, this report aims also to describe the challenges to realizing these gains, offer guidance on how to attain them, and propose safeguards for protecting citizens.

Current data landscape and the environment needed to realize data’s potential

The conceptual framework sets out the central theme of the report of how data – including data collected primarily for public policy and data created primarily for private, frequently commercial purposes – can lead to both positive and negative development outcomes. The first part of the report will examine the vast potential for data to improve the lives of poor people through improved use and re-use of data to design better public programs, policies, and service delivery, in addition to improved market efficiency and job creation through more private sector growth. Realizing this potential will require a significant re-thinking and restructuring of data systems, in particular data systems supporting the use of public sector data. The envisioned restructuring of data systems would place data centrally in policy-decision making processes and vastly improve the flow of data to ensure that it can be used repeatedly by a wide variety of stakeholders.

How Data Impacts Development – Potential Positive Linkages

Creating this sort of system though also entails risks – in particular, risks that data could be misused to harm people. The second part of the report will then focus on issues of governance, law, policy and infrastructure that can enable the use and reuse of data to deliver the potential benefits while creating safety measures that mitigate risks against harmful outcomes.

How Data Impacts Development - Potential Adverse Outcomes

The ‘development filter’: Unlocking data’s potential for the poor

All the above will be discussed with the focus on how data can benefit poor people in low- and middle-income countries. We call this the report’s development filter. What this means is that the report must grapple with the issue of whether and how data can really make a difference in the lives of the world’s 700 million people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day or, the 900 million people living without access to electricity;[i] many of them lacking access to the internet, or even electricity, and leaving few if any, digital trails from economic transactions. In addition, the report will be written from the perspective of policy-makers in lower income countries. Too often, they lack the infrastructure, legal and regulatory frameworks and institutional capacity to create a suitable environment for the data economy to flourish; or even the scale to benefit economically from data-based innovations. Moreover, their voices may not always be heard in the international fora where the global governance rules of the new data economy are being written.

 We would like to hear your views

As the title – Data for Better Lives – is meant to indicate, the aim of the report is to put people at the center. This is why we need your help, to understand your views on how data can fully realize its potential for development. Though the current circumstances pose many challenges for in-person consultations, we are seeking a diverse range of perspectives - from governments, private sector, international organizations, academia and civil society organizations.

As a first step of our broader consultation efforts, we are launching an online consultation with the release of the concept note. Please accept our invitation to provide your comments through the consultation platform or by writing to us at WDR2021@worldbank.org

Below are a few key questions to guide your thinking, in the areas where we most need your feedback:

  1. The report focuses on opportunities and challenges of data to improve the lives of poor people in low- and middle-income countries. Can you share an example of how data have directly helped to improve the lives of poor people in your community? Are there other issues within the context of development that we should consider?
  2. The report will aim to find a balance between data’s potential to improve the lives of the poor, and the risk of misuse. Can you provide examples of policies or tools that effectively safeguard against the misuse of data and prevent harm, while enabling us to untap its full value to benefit the wellbeing of people?
  3. Can you provide an example of where data collected for private purposes (e.g. through apps of private companies, digital commercial transactions, etc.) have been used to benefit poor people in your community? Are there examples where such data have impacted people negatively?
  4. What data governance and policy reforms are needed for less developed countries to benefit from the data economy? Does the report adequately address these issues (infrastructure, legal, institutions, economic policy challenges, etc.)?
  1. Are there any other important issues that the report misses and should be included in the report? Do you have any other general feedback on the topics covered in the report?

We are looking for case studies and examples of how data have changed people’s lives. Please share any documents and information by writing to WDR2021@worldbank.org by June 30th, 2020.

You can find more details of our plan at the WDR 2021 website, which will be updated as new consultations are planned. Do review our concept note and send us your comments. We look forward to hearing from you.


Reference links

[i] Estimate based on tables from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators indicating that 86.8% of the world’s population has access to electricity in 2015 and based on United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimates of global population of 7.38 billion people in 2015.

May 13, 2020

The people centered data is the essential element of citizen participation and equality

May 26, 2020

Thanks for making this public! Super relevant given the times that we find ourselves in.

Curious whether you folks are contemplating the human behavior variability on what is acceptable data collection. I think there is a continuum between "I couldn't care less" to "as long as I get value" and this is constantly shifting. IMHO privacy is a moving target and am wondering if there is a framework somewhere or guidelines - probably use case specific

Declan Deasy
May 26, 2020

The quotes at the beginning of the note could include other ‘greats’. How about Turing; Von Neumann; Berners Lee; Vannevar Bush ...

Okuku Godswill Joseph
May 26, 2020

Data can only be useful to one who understands it's usefulness and such understanding is acquired through Education. Data research in my opinion, should not be the first if sincerity is at the base of this program, Education and financial inclusion should.
For instance, many in Africa cannot tape into the global online business environment because they are excluded. Payment avenues like PayPal, Amway and other financial avenues are intentionally withheld from countries like Nigeria and others to keep them poor and dependent. So start with inclusion and data will then be useful.

May 26, 2020

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Eric Dodge
July 09, 2020

Successful data ecosystems are sustained by robust, user-friendly software, but governments around the world still struggle to build effective software systems that can realize the transformational potential of data to improve people’s lives. While policy implementation challenges are well-studied in development, more work needs to be done to extend this line of inquiry to software so we can better understand the unique challenges of building software in the public sector and advocate for reforms.

To take India as an example, it's initially puzzling why a country with so much engineering talent struggles to implement basic government data systems. Based on my work on government data systems in India and elsewhere over the past 10 years, I’ve come to understand a handful of key challenges that even well-intentioned governments face in deploying effective software for data systems:

- Government agencies often struggle to quantify the benefits of hiring higher quality technology talent for internal positions. This is exacerbated by extreme quality and cost differentiation among the pool of potential software hires.
- On government-led software projects, there is often a relative over-emphasis on engineers and under-emphasis on designers and product managers that leads to software that doesn't meet the needs of users.
- In terms of working with software vendors, lack of technical expertise in-house can lead to information asymmetries between the client and vendor, creating challenges for government agencies in both assessing quality during the vendor selection process and managing the work of the vendor throughout the project period.
- Risk aversion in vendor selection often contributes to lack of effective competition among vendors and poor quality end products.

Governments in both developed and developing countries have begun tackling these challenges by creating digital service units -- like the UK Government Digital Service -- to help government organizations build more effective software. Efforts to realize data's potential for development should increasingly look to address shortcomings in the enabling technology -- the software applications on which the data systems are built -- that undermine broader efforts to drive data use and improve people's lives.

Eric Dodge
Associate Director, Monitoring

Gbadebo Odularu
July 09, 2020

The importance in this discussion draws attention to big data's contribution to the wider global supply chains, commerce, and economy, especially in the post-COVID era. It is crucial to consider how data capacities could be harnessed to measure the impact of improvements in the border processes on observed trade volumes. This understanding will complement the existing body of literature which shows that administrative processes may be as significant in facilitation.