Using data creatively to improve people’s lives

Danil Mikhailov, Executive Director,

Data is a modern wonder that has the potential to provide innovative, evidence-based answers to complex social problems. One ongoing concern, though, is that useful data is often less a gold bar sparkling on a pedestal than a vein of ore hidden deep in a mountain. And simply digging out valuable data isn’t enough. We have to interpret it, act on it, and deliver results, all the while upholding principles of ethics and privacy that maintain public trust.

The data needed to tackle entrenched societal issues around the world, where resources can be scant, may be incomplete or inaccessible, if it exists at all. The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated this relentlessly and continues to do so, as the pandemic twists and turns through its second year. The availability of accessible, accurate, and complete health data is unevenly distributed in a way that often reflects structural inequalities within countries and between them. This means we far too often lack representative data for the most-vulnerable communities, further disadvantaging them when making evidence based public health interventions.

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs recognizes the need to knit together a world where reliable data is readily available to everyone through its Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals, and as such, convened the World Data Forum 2021 in Bern, Switzerland October 3-6. Also recognizing that need is, a global platform for cooperative partnerships that deploys data science for social impact to improve people’s daily lives.

At, we work to democratize data for the common good. We support global efforts to create and share good-quality, unbiased data in a way that preserves privacy and empowers local communities. We also provide tools and resources to help like-minded social organizations find and use such data to support their missions and reach their goals.

Global crises like climate change, pandemics or rising economic and social inequality demand thoughtful interdisciplinary data science interventions. Even small, on-the-ground improvements can deliver big results, while providing models for nations and constituencies facing similar challenges and looking for cost-effective, pragmatic solutions.

Real-world solutions driven by data

For instance, in sub-Saharan Africa, the nonprofit Solar Sister has helped more than 6,000 women to become entrepreneurs, delivering clean energy directly to rural homes. Through a grant from our Inclusive Growth and Recovery Challenge, Solar Sister are tapping into data to learn about future promising markets.

In Denmark, the Challenge is supporting a project to identify neighborhoods where inequality is undercutting many residents’ ability to thrive, the results of which could fuel changes in government policy to level the playing field of opportunity.

In Togo, we’re supporting a program to provide financial aid to families in need through their cell phones, since conventional banking during COVID is often inaccessible, so that daily life and commerce continue with some semblance of normalcy.

In the U.S. state of Texas, an innovative project is tapping into data to create a system that can estimate cleanup costs for environmentally damaged sites known as brownfields, thereby providing key information that can spur revitalization projects.

Training the data specialists

To find and distribute data in ways that can improve people’s lives around the world, we’re also working to train a new generation of diverse, purpose-driven data professionals who have the interdisciplinary skills to deliver data projects that make a difference in the social impact sector.

Through the Capacity Accelerator Network, we’re committed to supporting like-minded organizations to train a million data professionals by 2032. We’re also helping social impact organizations to build their infrastructure, operations, and strategies.

A consortium against COVID

As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to batter the world, we are developing an international initiative called “Epiverse” to help unlock data, including from non-traditional sources such as financial transactions, to discern patterns of activity relevant for disease modelling. We’re funding the creation of open-source tools to make this data accessible in a privacy-preserving way, and integrating, cleaning, analyzing, and visualizing it. We’re bringing together researchers, governments, technology companies, social impact organizations, and funders to that end, emphasizing fruitful cooperation at every turn.

Breaking down barriers between data silos while maintaining privacy, we aim to gain a more nuanced understanding of this global health care crisis and to draw up a blueprint for how we might lessen and even prevent the next one.

We believe that many of these insights will be applicable to tackling broader social problems. And we’re looking for more opportunities to do just that, drawing, as always, on the power of mission-driven partnerships to propel social good. Doing all this, we think we can make a difference.