Shaping the data governance landscape: A multi-sectoral approach to use, protection, and inclusive digital transformation

Tom Orrell , Director, DataReady on behalf of Open Data Watch

COVID-19 has brought to the fore a number of critical data concerns from the lack of timely and disaggregated data to monitor the virus, to underinvestment in statistical systems, to issues around data governance and use.

Digital ‘track and trace’ apps are being rolled out around the world, often amidst controversy. Data on incidence rates and death rates have become politicized in many countries. Misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic, its causes, and the efficacy of potential vaccines are widespread. In the world of official statistics, COVID-19 has caused decennial censuses in a number of countries to be postponed and has forced national statistics offices (NSOs) to innovate rapidly to plug data gaps. So-called ‘new data sources’ are important to help statisticians and policy-makers keep up with fast-paced developments and meet cyclical statistical demands, but they also require careful oversight.

COVID-19 is rapidly shifting perceptions, priorities, and needs as they relate to digital and data policy. This has accelerated the urgency of discussions around data governance in fora such as the UN World Data Forum (UNWDF). As a result, data governance issues – around how laws, rules, and procedures that guide how organizations manage, use, and share data across the value chain – for the first time make up a sizeable chunk of the UNWDF’s program.

Against this backdrop, Open Data Watch, the Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS), DataReady, Centre for Global Development, and Oxford Insights organized a session entitled Building the foundations of the data revolution: Taking a holistic approach to data governance as part of this year’s UNWDF exploring three data governance themes:

  1. Data protection, rights, and ethics;
  2. Data governance and inclusive digital transformation; and
  3. Data governance in official statistics.

Each theme was organized into a panel featuring insights from across civil society, national statistics offices, data commissioners’ offices, multilateral development organizations, and policy research institutes. In her role as discussant, Jessica Espey, Director at TReNDS reflected on the three panels and her thoughts can be summarized into four recommendations:

  1. We need more consistency in approaches and standards for data governance

Teki Akuetteh Falconer, CEO at the Africa Digital Rights Hub in Ghana, identified three disparities between data protection laws around the world: (1) around the variations in the adequacy of data protection standards in different countries; (2) the uniformity and consistency of laws; (3) and how accountability is enforced. She highlighted that, “if we look at an area like privacy, for example, there are a lot of similarities in issues and approaches across jurisdictions. However, legal systems, enforcement, and implementation systems are not uniform enough to allow for seamless data flows.”

On the issue of legal alignment and best practices relating to data protection, José Antonio Mejía Guerra, Modernization of the State Lead Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank posited that given their historic role as data producers and stewards, NSOs have a crucial role to play in helping other parts of government and entities across national data ecosystems better understand and implement responsible data use measures.

  • We need international organizations to lead by example and carry the torch for good data governance

Numerous speakers identified the UN and international organizations as playing a key role in improving the consistency of data governance approaches around the world. Sabrina Martin, Programme Lead at Oxford Insights noted that, “the UN is in an incredibly powerful place to be able to use human rights discourse to advance a codified framework for responsible tech ethics and data use.”

Drudeisha Madhub, Mauritius’s Data Protection Commissioner, emphasized the opportunity that the UN system has to share country-level good practices as well as to develop international standards. Malarvizhi Veerappan, Senior Data Scientist at the World Bank agreed, “we need more safeguards for data use. The [forthcoming] World Development Report is going to reference many of these issues, and its recommendations will center around the creation of systems that safeguard the flow of data between citizens and digital economies.”

As digital and data issues become more politicized, leadership from international organizations including the UN system is especially important to build international consensus within, and between, specialized communities such as official statistics, data protection, and sectoral sustainable development initiatives.

  • We need to bridge between digital and data policy siloes

Mike Pisa, Policy Fellow at the Centre for Global Development underscored the urgency of responsible data governance for countries in the process of digitizing their services. “Governments can’t have the good stuff without doing the hard stuff. This means that they can’t have the efficiencies that digital tools provide, without doing the hard, technical work of making systems interoperable, ensuring that accountability and transparency are embedded, and ensuring that the rules to protect data rights are clear and enforced.”

Rachel Sibande, Program Director, Data for Development at the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL), added that digital and data practitioners can learn a lot from each other, but to maximize opportunities, sectoral and geographic siloes must be brought down at national, regional, and global levels. I noted that digital transformation strategies offer potential opportunities for siloed digital and data communities of practice to work more closely together.

Despite historically emerging as distinct policy areas, as the world has digitized rapidly in recent years, there is a need to re-examine how experts working across ‘digital’ and ‘data’ can combine their efforts to ensure that common data governance issues – such as the need for robust regulatory environments – are addressed holistically.

  • We need to join-up islands of excellence and share data governance expertise

Sir Ian Diamond, Chief Statistician for the U.K.’s Office of National Statistics, spoke to the critical need for NSOs to, on the one hand, ensure that the value of data is realized in the public interest, whilst also ensuring that legal and ethical standards are upheld. He noted that, “as a stewarding entity, [the NSO] wants to use data. However, we must build an ethical construct around the data. Most importantly, that data must be understood by the public and made available. There is no point in having brilliant ethics if no one knows that you’ve got them.”

Reflecting and expanding on this point, Malarvizhi Veerappan noted that NSOs are often “islands of excellence” and reinforced José Antonio’s point on the opportunity for NSOs to share best practices in this regard.

As the data revolution progresses into the decade of action for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the need to share best practices as they relate to the operationalization of data governance principles and standards is more pressing than ever.