Dealing with Data Dilemmas: Towards a human-centered systems approach to sustainable data and digital technology development


Conflicts between preventing harm and promoting health and human security through the use of data and digital technologies have resulted in data and digital technology dilemmas. Data can be used to identify and change opinions; in social media data can be manipulated for personal or political gain; misinformation and disinformation can reinforce beliefs based on false facts making the truth hard to find, weakening trust in science and undermining the potential of collective intelligence. The youth suffer from adverse cyber-psychological health impacts from inadequate internet use, gender data gaps persist and advances in AI are threatening human freedom and augmenting many of these trends.

On the other hand, data and digital technology development create new opportunities for people’s voices to be heard. Participatory modelling facilitated by digital technologies have the potential to be more inclusive, strengthen democratic decision-making processes or enabling citizen science, facilitating deliberations, and creating opportunities for better governance by building collective intelligence.

In order to put data and digital technologies to the best use for people, data and digital technology dilemmas need to be overcome. A human-centered systems approach towards sustainable data and digital technology development is an attempt to do so. It aims at developing and applying digital technologies for the good of humans. The systems approach views humans interconnected among themselves and with the biosphere, so that data, knowledge and action are connected and lead to collective learning. The systems approach creates new connections between people and decision makers. Digital technologies can help accelerate developments towards common goals by reducing the costs and conflicts of finding consensus at scale.

The UNU Institute in Macau aims at advancing sustainable development by addressing those dilemmas in socio-technological systems. The 4th UN World Data Forum Satellite event will be taking place in Macau, in parallel to the main event in Hangzhou and responds to the following thematic areas of the main event in Hangzhou

  • Innovation and partnerships for better and more inclusive data
  • Maximizing the use and value of data for better decision making
  • Building trust and ethics in data
  • Emerging trends and partnerships to develop the data ecosystem

by discussing data and digital technology dilemmas in the following areas:

How can we build trust in citizen generated data by collective intelligence?

The world is facing an uncertain future brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and other uncertainty creating events. Citizen science and, more generally, public participation in scientific research and knowledge production can help generate data helpful in informing policies and mobilising action to address those challenges. Citizen science can help communities to participate in, understand, and trust science. However, this is not always producing the correct policies. To tackle scientific and societal challenges, in order to build trust around citizen generated data involving all stakeholders, we need to put together the capabilities of humans and machines in a new kind of trusted partnerships for building collective intelligence.

Data and Health Dilemmas: Cyber-psychological Implications

During the pandemic more health data than ever before was captured, stored, and utilised. This was not only in the widespread use of public health surveillance applications and tracking systems to mitigate against viral transmission, but also in the increase in e-health and telehealth services, the surge in health related information (and misinformation) search, spread, and access, as well as in the growth in research studies and data collection on health and wellbeing. What impact does this store of information have on us in the future and how does it (or did it) affect the way we behave, think, and feel? This session explores such questions and considers possible positive and negative future implications concerning data and health.

Data, digital technologies, and human-centered design for decision-making

Design thinking refers to social processes of data collection, analysis, and integration in a systems context to allow for collaborative, inclusive, and evidence-based decision-making. Achieving the SDGs relies on strong data and evidence to inform decision-making in the face of wicked problems. This session will present the key principles of the design thinking process and consider how a human-centered design thinking approach can be used to catalyze decision-making for sustainable development. What distinguishes human-centered design from other problem-solving approaches is its emphasis on understanding the perspective of those who are most directly affected by a problem.

Regulatory Dilemmas and Digital Technologies

New technologies often pose difficult regulatory dilemmas in the field of law. Additionally, the creeping codification of international law and proliferation of international organizations may further contribute to the possibility of legal dilemmas to occur. The digital revolution and convergence of different technologies may be another factor in this trend, one that requires a greater consistency of the regulatory framework and better coordination between different legal fields. Overall, the regulatory challenges caused by the complexity of the present regulatory environment has given rise to a number of regulatory paradoxes, which will be briefly discussed and analysed.

Addressing Gender Data Gaps for a Sustainable Future

The existing gender data gaps in terms of quantity, quality as well as statistical capacity make it difficult to monitor progress towards SDG 5 (gender equality) as well as achieving women and girls’ well-being. During this session, invited specialists and practitioners will share their insights and practices on addressing gender data gaps towards building a sustainable future for women and men. Interested participants will come together sharing their common concerns and contributing their wisdom on how data can represent the lived reality of women and men in all their diversity; mainstreaming gender into data production; and other relevant issues.