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In the data for development community, we’re predominantly optimists. We’re driven by the conviction that more and better data will translate into improvements in people’s lives. There is strong evidence for this belief but also much evidence to the contrary. In the seven years since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed upon,  the opportunities of the data revolution have expanded just as the complex and overlapping risks and harms have come into stark focus.

Balancing these risks and opportunities is a political challenge. No single group has the monopoly on the best way forward. Finding common ground will increase the power of collective advocacy to unlock the opportunities of data for all, putting people at the center while guarding against  potential harms.

Many actors are working on these challenges in different, often fragmented ways. Public authorities are adopting new data governance approaches at all levels—from local to international. For example, the Canadian province of Ontario established a health data platform to enable researchers working on COVID-19 secure access to patient data. The UN Statistical Commission is exploring the concept of data stewardship with National Statistical Offices around the world to help them define their role as data governance needs evolve.

Academics are calling for data justice, unpacking data trust and equity and examining the difference between protecting individual and group data rights. Communities are adopting principles for the use of their data. Practitioners like Kenya’s Open Institute are engaging communities in the data value chain. Starting in 2015 they launched a pilot program in Lanet Umoja that engaged the community in data collection, interpretation and use leading to actions they agreed to take together and advocacy toward local authorities to create a much-needed community health facility. 

For all these differences in contexts, approaches, sectors and resources, a good degree of consensus on what the problems are already exists. A unifying narrative on what can be done to alleviate them is urgently needed to navigate the rapid datafication of society without throwing the good out with the bad.

The Data Values Project aims to fill this big picture advocacy void by building a common agenda and leveraging the power of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data’s broad network to push for change. We will do this by bringing the work and experience of our diverse partners together, identifying where there is consensus on what needs to change for data to drive a more sustainable and equitable world.

How we will we build our common agenda

The Data Values Project is led by the Global Partnership’s Technical Advisory Group, a convening of experts spanning a diversity of sectors and geographies. This group has defined three thematic tracks of action for a broad-based consultation and dialogue focusing on inclusion, sustainable and equitable development and data governance. Within each track we are questioning the basic assumptions that underpin our data optimism, bringing together diverse and underrepresented perspectives and identifying the policy changes we want to advocate for collectively.

Equity is not a given

Data is people. It’s our lives translated into numbers and insights. But, in such a technical field, it is rare to consider people first and to assess how data may reproduce inequalities. Yet, there are many partners in the Global Partnership’s network that are working to make data more inclusive, to close feedback loops with communities so that data collection is not extractive, to engage people in formulating the questions even before data is collected. In our track on inclusion, we will explore how data, done well, can be a route to inclusion and equity, putting people and their agency at the center of data for development. 

Use is not guaranteed

The 2030 Agenda establishes a vision for a sustainable and equitable future. Having the right data at the right time is critical to achieve the Goals, but it will not automatically get us there—having the data does not guarantee it will be used. Our track on using data for sustainable and equitable development will explore the incentives and demand structures that create sustained data use for public good. It will draw on evidence and examples of what works to build an agenda for advocacy that promotes sustained and purposeful data use.

Governance is deeply contested

The World Development Report 2021 describes a country’s data governance framework as the tangible expression of their social contract around data. But what should this framework contain and who should decide? Our track on well-governed data starts from the premise that different stakeholders have different perspectives and expectations of what data governance is, what problem it is solving and for whom. Building from the World Development Report and other partner contributions, we will listen to diverse perspectives and bring them together to identify collectively agreed building blocks for good data governance.

Looking ahead

Over the next five months, we are facilitating an open dialogue across these three tracks of action: through panel and roundtable discussions; expert interviews; blogs; position papers and other written contributions. This web hub will be a platform for dialogue and debate, amplifying voices, perspectives and resources from across the Global Partnership and beyond. Each track will distill its key messages in a white paper to be published and discussed early next year. Building on the white papers, the Data Values Project will launch a manifesto for action in Autumn 2022 articulating what we stand for and how the Global Partnership’s network will come together to drive change.   

We want to hear from you—your ideas, your challenges and any resources you think might be helpful—as part of our open consultation. Get in touch and register your interest by dropping us a line at: datavalues@data4sdgs.org, and join the #DataValues conversation on social media. 

Jenna Slotin is Senior Director of Policy for the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.