Man walking across an empty street in Accra, Ghana, with "COVID-19" graffitied on the wall
Photo by Jordi Perdigo/GPSDD

This blog was originally published here on Skoll Perspectives.

One of the themes of the last decade has been a frightening rise in misinformation and untruth. Social media platforms transmit falsehoods around the world with a single click. The most powerful man in the world made at least 20,000 false or misleading claims in his four years of office. Unsurprisingly perhaps, public trust in science, data, and facts has dramatically declined.

This has consequences. Deaths from measles around the world rose 50 percent in four years, after years of false assertions about vaccine safety. Decades of misinformation about climate change have put the brakes on political action, and four of the last five years were the hottest ever recorded.

This year raised the stakes like never before. Over the long months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the facts, the data they are built from, and what scientists and politicians do with them, have mattered to our health in a way that few of us have ever experienced. Without a vaccine, the right information at the right time, trusted and used by governments, companies, and individuals, became the best weapon against the virus, to track its course and limit its impact.

Recent news is more positive. With a vaccine drawing closer, and with the USA poised to rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change, it seems that, just maybe, data and facts are ascendant.

But the battle is not won. We might all feel more hopeful now, but the last decade should also have challenged any complacency that the truth will win in the end.

Facts are not handed down. Instead, they are built up.

Facts are built up from data that is collected, that is tested and verified, and that is analysed and processed into information. The information in turn is subject to scrutiny, challenge, and testing again. And only then, and only if the politics are right, are these facts used to inform what people, companies, and governments actually do. It’s a process that takes knowledge, resources, partnership, and public support. And, above all, political leadership.

My organization – the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data - is a coalition of 260 organisations dedicated to data and facts that change the world for the better. They include United Nations agencies, civil society, academia, national statistical organisations, technology companies, and more. They work around the world, doing the painstaking labour that creates the facts that governments, companies, and individuals rely on to make good decisions. When COVID hit, we were ready.

In April, we joined forces with the UN Economic Commission for Africa, supported by the Skoll Foundation and other partners, to make sure that governments had the data they needed to fight the pandemic. Six months on, we are working with 24 countries and have brokered 49 partnerships between governments, companies, universities, and civil society groups, ensuring that the best data is brought to bear on this worst of problems.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and an early COVID hotspot on the continent. Dr. Yemi Kale, the Statistician-General, well understood the need to put data at the heart of the COVID response, and worked with the team at the Global Partnership, and partners including ESRI, Flowminder, Fraym, Qatar Computing Research Institute, and GRID3, to put together a data hub to bring together the huge range of important data into a format that could be easily used for decision making.

Once he had the data, he needed to make sure that it got to where decisions were made. The National Bureau of Statistics is working with various committees within the Presidential Task Force, the highest decision-making body for coronavirus response, to ensure data is available at the heart of decision-making. The data will help to identify vulnerable populations, track mobility patterns, improve access to healthcare and testing, and get support to the communities who need it most.

This experience has been replicated across the continent, with data partnerships being created to support government decision making on health, food, the economy, and agriculture; to manage the pandemic and plot a course out of this crisis. In Kenya, data from citizens is helping the authorities to track supplies and prices of staple foods during the pandemic, and in Ghana, data is helping the government to allocate COVID test kits to where they are most needed.

What’s Next

COVID has galvanised a global conversation, and global action, on data, its uses and abuses, and the importance of facts to guide decision making. Our 260 fact-loving partners welcome this, but also recognise the fragility of this moment. COVID won’t always be with us, but the need for good data will not go away.

Let’s hope that 2020 was the year that the tide turned in favour of facts. But let’s also learn the lesson of the last difficult decade.  Facts must be fought for – fought for at least as vociferously as lies are promoted. We are proud to be part of the global army of factivists, and we hope this year will inspire others to join us.