Policy makers need data about us despite privacy fears Larry Elliott, editor of Economics

NOTslide est please. We soon caught on to the way it worked. Chris Whitty would put the word out and he would pop up a chart detailing the progress being made in the fight against Covid-19. There are memes and mugs to commemorate the small expression of the chief medical officer of England.


Whitty’s presentations detailed infection rates, hospital admissions and deaths. Within weeks of the pandemic’s arrival in early 2020 the public was aware of the R number – a way of assessing how fast the virus was spreading.

Over the months, public concern about Covid-19 has subsided and is now well behind inflation in the list of voter concerns. Rising prices have meant increasing scrutiny of how Britain calculates living costs, including by chef and activist Jack Monroe. The Office for National Statistics calculates the annual rate of inflation by collecting the price of 700 goods and services in various locations and online, but says it wants to know more about price movements and how spending habits are changing.

The next big economic debate will almost certainly be about whether or not the UK is heading for recession. In 2008, output had already been falling for several months before being reflected in the quarterly gross domestic product figures.

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

The common thread that links these three examples is data. Governments have always seen the connection between data and policy decisions. Early stabbing was William I’s Domesday Book in a national audit for England in the 11th century. In 1801, he raised concern over whether there would be enough food for a growing population, the first census for England, Scotland and Wales.

Over time, the state has discovered more and more about how its citizens live, to the point where there is a legitimate debate about the invasion of privacy. It’s not just governments, though. Using loyalty cards gives retailers information on our spending habits. Technology companies like Facebook and Google know what interests each user and tailor the ads that appear accordingly.

Getting the balance right is not easy. Ministers needed accurate data to monitor the impact of the lock on infection rates. The Bank of England needs enough information to be able to calibrate the right level of interest rates. Life has moved on from the early 1930s when the 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, investment in data collection and analysis is extremely low. Four in 10 of the world’s deaths are unregistered. More than a quarter of children overall and more than half of children in sub-Saharan Africa under five were not registered at birth. A Google search for the world’s population brings up the 7.9 billion number but that’s just an educated guess. The same is true of indicators of human development such as infant mortality or literacy rates.

There’s more. Only one in six countries has enough data to report progress towards meeting climate change targets and on average the latest emissions data is from 2015. Two thirds of countries have been forced to delay a census planned because of the pandemic. The United Nations has a set of sustainable development goals to meet by 2030: only six of the 17 have more than two-thirds of country data to report.

A paper published jointly by the United Nations, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (a network of more than 600 partners of tech giants to civil society groups) says the issues are most urgent where the challenges are greatest. Gaps in the data are evident for gender in all areas of development: economic opportunities, environment, health, human safety and public participation.

Clearly, technology has a role to play in filling these gaps and in some cases it already does. Ghana, for example, established a partnership between its state statistics office, Vodafone Ghana and the Swedish non-profit organization Flowminder to track mobility and help with public health emergency planning.

Two more ingredients are needed. The first is money, because after a 10 year period when support for data systems has flattened, there is now a funding gap of over $ 1bn (£ 800m). For donor countries, simply spending money on statisticians is not as magical as spending money on a new hospital, though better data would lead to better healthcare. The World Bank and the United Nations launched a campaign last week to raise at least $ 500m over the next 10 years, which they believe could act as a catalyst for billions of dollars of foreign development assistance and private sector funding.

The second ingredient is governance, where there is a need to ensure that low-income countries are not removed from data in the way that they have too often been extracted from their natural resources. A long history of exploitation means that care must be taken to ensure that the potential benefits of better data are shared equitably. Facebook is expanding in Africa and so is Huawei: safeguards are needed to ensure that this investment serves the public good.

Nevertheless, the message is clear. If the world is serious about tackling climate change, it needs better data. If it wants better protections against future pandemics it needs better data. If it wants faster growth in poorer countries it needs better data. Decision-making in the dark is not sensitive. Next slide please.

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