The 2020 UN World Data Forum brought together data scientists and technology experts from the public, private, and academic sectors to discuss new technology, innovations, and the ways data is used in the COVID-19 era. The worldwide pandemic has proven the ever-important need for real-time data, and several events at the WDF explored what experts have been able to learn about responsible data use during this still-unfolding crisis. This year’s forum was unique in that it was a completely virtual event, so even for those panels not directly linked to data about COVID-19, the pandemic was an undeniable part of the discussion.
On the WDF
The WDF was initially created to encourage the use of data to support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Panels at the 2020 forum delved into a wide range of topics, from gender equality, to public health interventions, to environmental sustainability.
Discussions were broken down into six main areas:
- New approaches to capacity development for better data
- Innovations and synergies across data ecosystems
- Leaving no one behind
- Understanding the world through data
- Building trust in data and statistics
- How far have we come?
Data, science, technology and Covid-19
In the light of the pandemic, all of these topics took on new importance. Data has been used in many ways during the Covid-19 crisis, from mapping the spread of the disease with mobile data, social media analytics, and even data from Automatic Identification Systems of ships, to understanding why some populations are affected more acutely than others and using predictive analytics to foresee the impact on those populations.
Covid-19 has ultimately been a case study for all of these topics. It has shown how robust data infrastructures provide accurate and timely information to doctors, researchers, and the public; how data can help understand global problems in real time; how the lack of data about certain populations can lead to disastrous effects; and even how public mistrust in science can be detrimental to an effective, well-timed response to crises.
With almost a year of data, analyses, and insights to explore, the Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of using data effectively, responsibly, and sustainably, without sacrificing speed or efficiency as a result. This is ultimately what the WDF is about: coming up with strategies and tools to collect, analyze, and communicate with data in a way that maximizes benefits while reducing harms. On this topic, our team at UN Global Pulse organized a series of events where we delved into the challenges and solutions of safe and trustworthy AI sytems, as well as into the opportunities to built the technical infrastructure needed to facilitate access to quality data.
Looking to the future
As an initiative focused on big data and evolving technologies such as artificial intelligence, UN Global Pulse has been at the centre of innovation inside the UN for more than a decade developing tools and setting in place strategies for the safe use of these technologies. Our goals have similarly been brought to the fore by the pandemic, and as the world has adapted to Covid-19, so too has our approach to data evolved alongside it.
The main conclusion of this year’s WDF is that even when this specific crisis has passed , there will continue to be a need for the tools we’re developing now. While we create strategies and technologies that are targeted to deal with Covid-19, these methods can be applied more broadly to address long-term challenges and pave the way towards achieving the SDGs.
In case we are confronted with another worldwide crisis of the scale of this pandemic, we will hopefully be able to rely on the work we are doing now and in the years to come so that we can react promptly, work quicker and more effectively to safeguard lives and livelihoods.