Data in the spotlight at G20: What does it mean?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo take part in the handover ceremony during the G20 Summit last year. Credit: Salma Bashir Motiwala on Shutterstock.

Data has a front row seat in global discussions as India kicks off its year-long presidency of the G20 bloc of the world’s largest economies. Seven years from the call for a data revolution and at the half-way point to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), data is finally getting the attention it deserves. 

We’re witnessing a once-in-a-decade opportunity to accelerate progress toward sustainable development by investing in data systems. In this year’s G20, we see opportunities for alignment within the long-standing development working group (which identifies digital transformation as an SDG accelerator and has a data for development initiative in the works) and the relatively new digital economy working group. This is the first time a high-profile political process has spotlighted data, and it raises interesting questions about how India as the G20 President will bring these issues together and what outcomes we’ll see to advance the data agenda. 

All the pieces are there: Will the puzzle come together?  

The G20 agenda this year touches on data from several angles. These pieces—generally categorized into digital transformation, capacity building, cross-border and free flows of data, and digital inclusion—are starting to coalesce like pieces of a puzzle pointing toward a whole systems approach to data. Here’s what we know so far: 

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Digital transformation is now framed as an SDG accelerator in the G20’s development working group. This is at least partly a result of the pandemic, which focused political minds on the urgency of digital transformation. We saw how countries that had previously invested in digital infrastructure such as identification or payment systems responded to the crisis quickly and effectively by leveraging these systems for cash transfers, vaccine roll-out, and other relief efforts. Now policy makers are eager to follow this path and leverage digital solutions to scale up service delivery and expand opportunities. 

Because digital tools and systems run on data, this won’t be possible without strengthening data systems. The power of digital transformation relies on systems’ abilities to collate, analyze, and use vast amounts of data for new insights, smoother processes, and targeted action. Leveraging the full power of digital transformation—and doing so in a way that earns public support—requires that governments have the institutions, skills, and infrastructure to store, process, analyze, govern, and use the data they produce. 

Capacity development and building digital literacy and skills are increasingly prominent in both the development and digital economy working groups. Strengthening public sector capacity to produce, analyze, govern, and use data, particularly in developing countries, is a critical ingredient to propel digital transformation. Likewise, raising the bar for digital literacy will expand access to the digital economy, contribute to growth, and enable people to take a more meaningful role in shaping their digital lives.  

Data free flow with trust and cross-border data flows were among three priority topics in the G20’s digital economy working group in 2022 and are likely to carry-over into this year. The emphasis on these topics highlights the important role of data sharing in driving innovation, economic progress, and digital transformation and calls attention to the technical and governance requirements to make data sharing work. 

Of course, data governance questions are of paramount importance here. Previous G20 ministerial statements emphasized the importance of protecting privacy and ensuring personal data protection while prior G20 processes have initiated dialogues to deepen understanding of data governance issues. While these discussions are fraught with deep tensions, the power of digital transformation to help achieve the SDGs risks doing more harm than good unless we address questions of data governance.

The goals of increasing digital inclusion and protecting human rights in digital transformation have also emerged in the digital economy working group. This reflects a collective recognition that the digital divide and the way personal data is collected and used without consent risks deepening inequalities and leaving people further behind. 

Last year, the digital economy working group collected G20 members’ experiences on how they improved the participation of people in vulnerable situations in the digital economy. This included ideas like adopting the “nothing about us without us” model (drawing on a mantra developed by disability rights activists) when building digital tools and expanding digital access to ensure the needs of vulnerable populations are taken into account. Centering inclusivity and understanding how vulnerable and underrepresented populations access, participate in, and are affected by the digital economy is essential to ensure that data and digital systems help rather than harm people.

Centering inclusivity and understanding how vulnerable and underrepresented populations access, participate in, and are affected by the digital economy is essential to ensure that data and digital systems help rather than harm people.

What’s next?

Viewing these fragmented streams of work as pieces of a larger puzzle makes clear that this year presents a unique opportunity to encourage coherent action to strengthen data systems. No initiative on its own will succeed without taking a system-wide approach. Following years of stagnating investment, no action on data will be successful without stepped-up and sustained investment.

After over a decade of advocacy, there is now clear political impetus to prioritize data and a recognition that comprehensive, system-wide investments are valuable both in their own right and to accelerate progress toward the SDGs. It really can’t be said enough: Digital transformation is built on data, so data has to be fully funded, well-governed, and prioritized to ensure these systems are effective, equitable, and useful.

Strengthening data systems ultimately comes down to national policy decisions, but everyone is better off when national decisions are made in the context of international cooperation. Global frameworks can guide international investments, set out norms for good and bad behavior, and establish guardrails to protect people and enable data systems to realize their full potential. This kind of framework has historically been missing for data and now is the opportunity to start putting one in place.

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