Policymakers need data about us despite privacy fears | Larry Elliott, Economics editor

Next slide please. We soon caught on to the way it worked. Chris Whitty would give the word and up would pop a chart detailing the progress being made in the fight against Covid-19. There are memes and mugs to commemorate the catchphrase of England’s chief medical officer.

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

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

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

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

The common thread that links these three examples is data. Governments have always seen the link between data and policy decisions. William I’s Domesday Book was an early stab at a national audit for 11th-century England. In 1801 concern about whether there would be enough food for a growing population prompted the first census covering England, Scotland and Wales.

Over time, the state has found out more and more about how its citizens live, to the point where there is a legitimate debate to be had about invasion of privacy. It is not just governments, however. Use of loyalty cards gives retailers information about our spending habits. Tech companies such as Facebook and Google know what every user is interested in and tailor the ads that pop up accordingly.

Getting the balance right is not easy. Ministers needed accurate data to monitor the impact of the lockdown 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 hindered the response to the Great Depression in the US.

But not everywhere. In some parts of the world, investment in data collection and analysis is abysmally 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 the age of five were not registered at birth. A Google search for the world’s population brings up the number 7.9 billion but that’s really just an educated guess. The same applies to human development indicators such as infant mortality or literacy rates.

There’s more. Only one in six countries have sufficient data to report on progress towards hitting climate change targets and on average the latest emissions data is from 2015. Two-thirds of countries have been forced to postpone a planned census due to the pandemic. The UN has a set of sustainable development goals to be hit by 2030: in only six of the 17 have more than two-thirds of countries data to report.

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

Clearly, technology has a role to play in plugging these gaps and in some cases is already doing so. Ghana, for example, set up a partnership between its national statistics office, Vodafone Ghana and the Swedish nonprofit foundation Flowminder to track mobility and help in public health emergency planning.

Two other ingredients are needed. The first is money, because after a 10-year period in which aid for data systems has flatlined there is now a financing gap of more than $1bn (£800m). For donor countries, spending money on statisticians is simply not as glamorous as spending money on a new hospital, even though better data would lead to better health care. The World Bank and the UN launched a campaign last week to raise at least $500m over the next 10 years, which they believe could act as the catalyst for billions of dollars of overseas development assistance and private sector funding.

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

Even so, the message is clear. If the world is serious about tackling climate change, it needs better data. If it wants to have better defenses against future pandemics it needs better data. If it wants faster growth in poorer countries it needs better data. Making decisions in the dark is not sensible. Next slide please.

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