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A data driven revolution for a better future

01:19 PM May 04, 2020

In a matter of months, over 3 million people have been infected, hundreds of thousands have died, health systems have been overwhelmed, economies decimated, and the social fabric of countries stretched to the point of tearing.  But this crisis also presents an unprecedented choice for development—a return to business as usual or a fundamentally alternative future?

The response to this pandemic is arguably the most digitally enabled in history, with innovations supporting disease surveillance, providing information to citizenry, enabling teleworking, facilitating on-line collaboration and learning, and making social relief payments at immense scale possible. Financial resources are being made available in volumes that dwarf the response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08.  Lockdowns have taken vehicles off the streets, allowed people to work from home and at the same time care for families, and given people a glimpse of mountains and blue skies they have never been able to see through persistent smog.  Some leaders are talking more enthusiastically about planetary health and social wellbeing as an equal, if not greater, measure of national success than GDP.  COVID-19 is leading to unprecedented speed and global collaboration in vaccine and antibody development.  Within the span of the last 90 days, nearly 1,700 economic policy announcements on COVID-19 have been made by governments and institutions to ameliorate the worst of the impacts.

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Perhaps like no time before we are seeing experimentation at scale and speed.  But what works?  What are the opportunity costs?  What are the differentiated impacts across income groups, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and across different geographic areas? Where do you invest your financial resources – knowing that for each debt dollar spent will be for future generations to repay – to obtain the highest returns measured by planetary health and social wellbeing as much as growth in GDP? When do you ease lockdowns? Certainly in the Philippines, and likely in most developing countries, existing approaches for monitoring impact and efficacy are piecemeal and certainly not at the scale and granularity required to enable well-informed systemic change. It does not have to be this way. There is an immense amount of administrative and high-frequency data available that can be used. There are also honed methods for scraping this data and mature frameworks for structuring it in meaningful ways. We need to converge these frameworks, data streams, data standards, to make better sense and guide an effective response and shape our desired future.

COVID-19, for all its deleterious effects, can provide the stimulus for data collaborations to chart the way forward to the ‘new normal’.  Now is the time to bring together government, industry, social media, non-profits, data scientists and researchers (national and international) under a common platform to collect (and with due regard to data privacy and civil rights), ingest, synthesize, visualize, and analyze, with the aid of Artificial Intelligence and predictive software, a wide array of data and translate these into evidence-based policies and programs.

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COVID-19 is showing us that revolutionary change is possible. We are seeing a tsunami of innovation engulfing us. The sheer magnitude of the crisis is also providing us with the impetus for reflection on the future we need.  Data collaborations, enabled by technology can help us accelerate towards a dramatically different, equitable, and sustainable world.  If there is indeed a ‘COVID-19 Dividend,’ it is perhaps the opportunity for a data driven revolution for a better future.

Titon Mitra is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in the Philippines.

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