Policy makers need data about us despite privacy concerns | Larry Elliott, Economics Editor

nExt slide please. We soon found out how it works. Chris Whitty will give the floor and show a chart detailing the progress made in the fight against Covid-19. There are memes and mugs to commemorate the emblem of England’s chief medical officer.

Witty detailed infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths. Within weeks of the pandemic’s arrival in early 2020, the public learned of the R number – a way to assess how quickly the virus was spreading.

Over the months, public anxiety about Covid-19 has faded and is now behind inflation on the list of voters’ list of concerns. The price hike has led to increased scrutiny of the way Britain calculates the cost of living, including from chef and activist Jack Monroe. The Office for National Statistics calculates the annual inflation rate by collecting the price of 700 goods and services on various sites and online, but says it wants to learn more about price movements and how spending habits are changing.

The next big economic debate will almost certainly be over whether or not the UK is headed into a recession. In 2008, production was already declining for several months before it was reflected in the quarterly GDP numbers.

Since then, monthly GDP figures have been introduced and since the pandemic, empirical figures designed to provide real-time indications of the state of the economy have been used. They include card payments, the number of people eating out and traffic density.

The common thread connecting these three examples is data. Governments have long seen the link between data and policy decisions. The Doomsday Book of William I was an early stab at national scrutiny for 11th century England. In 1801, concern about whether there would be enough food for a growing population led to the first census covering England, Scotland and Wales.

Over time, the country has discovered more and more about how its citizens live, to the point that there is a legitimate debate to be had about the invasion of privacy. But it’s not just about governments. Using loyalty cards gives retailers information about our spending habits. Tech companies like Facebook and Google know what each user is interested in and customize the ads that appear accordingly.

Getting the right balance is not easy. Ministers needed accurate data to monitor the impact of the lockdown on infection rates. The Bank of England needs enough information to be able to calibrate the correct level of interest rates. Life moved on from the early 1930s when a lack of accurate and comprehensive data hampered the response to the Great Depression in the United States.

But not everywhere. In some parts of the world, the investment in data collection and analysis is very low. Four out of 10 deaths worldwide are unrecorded. More than a quarter of children overall and more than half of children in sub-Saharan Africa under the age of five are not registered at birth. A Google search of the world’s population leads to the number 7.9 billion, but that’s really just an educated guess. The same is true for human development indicators such as child mortality rates or literacy rates.

there is more. Only one in six countries has sufficient data to report on progress towards climate change goals, and on average, the most recent emissions data date back to 2015. Two-thirds of countries have had to postpone a planned census because of the pandemic. The United Nations has a set of Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030: in just six out of 17 it has more than two-thirds of countries’ data to report.

A research paper jointly published by the United Nations, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (a network of over 600 partners from tech giants to civil society groups) notes that the issues are the most pressing where the challenges are greatest. There are clear gender data gaps in all areas of development: economic opportunity, environment, health, human security, and public participation.

Technology clearly has a role to play in bridging these gaps, and in some cases it does. Ghana, for example, has set up a partnership between its national statistics office, Vodafone Ghana, and the Swedish non-profit Flowminder to track mobility and help plan for public health emergencies.

Two more components are needed. The first is money, because after a 10-year period in which aid for data systems has been flat, there is now a funding gap of more than $1 billion (£800m). For donor countries, spending money on statisticians is simply not as magical as spending money on a new hospital, even though better data will lead to better health care. The World Bank and the United Nations launched a campaign last week to raise at least $500 million over the next 10 years, which they believe could serve as a catalyst for billions of dollars in overseas development aid and private sector financing.

The second component is governance, where there is a need to ensure that low-income countries are not stripped of data in the way they have often been stripped of their natural resources. The long history of exploitation means that care must be taken to ensure equitable sharing of the potential benefits from improved data. Facebook is expanding in Africa and so is Huawei: safeguards are needed to ensure that this investment is for the greater good.

However, the message is clear. If the world is serious about tackling climate change, it needs better data. If it wants to have better defenses against future pandemics, it needs better data. If they want faster growth in poor countries, they need better data. Making decisions in the dark is not reasonable. Next slide please.

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