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In the Wreckage of the Pandemic, A Hundred Questions about Data and Governance

March 3, 2021

By Fiona Cece, Nicola Nixon, and Stefaan G. Verhulst

 

What are the most pressing governance questions that can be addressed using data science?

 

Data is at the heart of every dimension of the Covid-19 challenge. It has been vital for monitoring daily infection rates, for track-and-trace strategies, and for vaccine rollouts. Yet our daily diet of brightly colored graphs of global trends masks a maelstrom of inaccuracies, gaps, and guesswork that underlies the numbers on which they are based. When the data itself is partial, incomplete, or simply biased, citizens cannot call for meaningful change, and governments cannot address their citizens’ needs, in an informed way.

There is an irony here. We live in an era with an unprecedented number of ways to collect data. In even the poorest countries, with weak government systems, anyone who uses a mobile phone or accesses the internet is using and producing data. Yet there is a chasm between data’s potential to contribute to better governance and the reality of what is actually collected and used.

Even where data is reliably accurate, the practice of effective, efficient, and equitable data governance requires far more than just its collection and dissemination.

And although governments have a vital role to play, combating the pandemic and its socioeconomic challenges will also require the combined efforts of NGOs, civil society organizations, citizens’ groups, healthcare providers, universities, think tanks, and many others.

Collaboration is key. One project working toward this end is The 100 Questions Initiative from The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. In partnership with the The Asia Foundation, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia, and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, the The 100 Questions Initiative is launching a sweeping new inquiry in the domain of governance. The Initiative will draw on the expertise of over 100 experts in both governance and data science—what we call “bilinguals”—a multisectoral and geographically diverse cohort of experts who will work to collectively identify the most pressing governance questions that can be addressed using data and data science.

The Initiative will draw on the expertise of over 100 experts in both governance and data science—what we call “bilinguals”—to collectively identify the most pressing governance questions.

Once the questions have been identified, prioritized, and reviewed by a broader public through a voting campaign, the Initiative will establish one or more data collaboratives to look for answers. Data collaboratives are an emerging mechanism for pooling data and expertise across sectors, often resulting in new insights and public-sector innovations. They have been deployed across countries and disciplines, and their success shows that in the twenty-first century broad-based collaborations can solve vexing public problems better than any single actor.

The governance challenges of our present era, especially in this moment of Covid-19, require this kind of multisectoral and geographically diverse collaboration. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in governance around the world, and the open-governance and data-for-development community must work collectively with the best tools available to craft effective, evidence-based solutions. It is time to leverage the data and technology resources at our command to make service delivery and decision-making more citizen-centered, to beat the pandemic, and to build back better our governance systems and institutions. Together with more than 100 “bilinguals,” we have set out to identify the priority questions of governance that data can answer. Join us on this journey. Stay tuned for our public voting campaign, in a couple of months, when we will crowdsource your views on which of the questions they pose matter the most.

 

Fiona Cece is a research fellow at The GovLab at New York University and project lead of the 100 Questions Initiative. Stefaan Verhulst is cofounder and chief research and development officer of The GovLab. Nicola Nixon is regional director of The Asia Foundation’s Governance Programs Specialists Group, and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

This article appeared previously, in slightly different form, in the blog of the Open Government Partnership.

 

Related programs: Strengthen Governance

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