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The data divide is real. We urgently need to close it.


3 mins read

Today, many of the basic things we need – healthcare, work, education – are powered by digital technology. In a lot of ways, digitization has made our everyday lives easier and more efficient. 

But for every action, there is a reaction. For digitization, it is data. 

Estimates suggest people produce up to 3.5 quintillion (3,500,000,000,000,000,000) bytes of data every day. A mind blogging amount, that is only set to increase as more people come online across Africa, Asia, and beyond. 

Yet right now, most of that data sits in the hands of a limited number of powerful actors – governments, large tech companies, and a range of data brokers in between. Individuals have little control over their own data, let alone reap any benefit from it. Innovators are often shut out of accessing data to improve their offerings. Policymakers are ill-equipped to take advantage of data insights to improve public services.  

Enter the data divide.

Simply put, the data divide is the gap between those who can effectively leverage data, and those who cannot. More importantly, it reflects a growing disparity between the expanding use of data to create commercial value and the comparatively weak use of data to solve social, environmental, and other urgent societal challenges.  

Unsurprisingly, the data divide disproportionately impacts underserved communities and smaller organizations, limiting their ability to compete, innovate, and create positive change. 

Africa, especially, is at a crossroads. As digitization on the continent accelerates, countries can learn from the pitfalls of others. In many countries across the world, data has become a topic fraught with fear and distrust or, even worse, a source of oppression in the hands of corrupt governments and big business. Without concerted action, this pattern may simply continue. 

But we can change this. 

We have an opportunity to responsibly put data back into the hands of those who should benefit from it the most – and to implement policies and regulations alongside data infrastructure to ensure digitization is used to improve people’s lives, not harm them. 

It is urgent that the global community take clear and concrete steps to bridge this gap and create a more equitable data future for all.

As I take the helm of the Digital Impact Alliance, we are committed to supporting the global community – government actors, policy makers and digital donors – to do just that.  

How the Digital Impact Alliance aims to help.

For over 7 years, the Digital Impact Alliance has tried to shine a light on how to accelerate digitization and improve access to the basic services all people need. In essence, to try to close the digital divide by supporting the adoption of digital public infrastructure designed to maximize inclusion.  

Much more work still needs to be done to ensure the 2.7 billion people offline have access to the internet and technology – and can derive equal benefit from digitization.  

But while the digital divide is (albeit slowly) closing, the data divide is widening.

As a response, we aim to help accelerate digital investments and policies specifically designed to unlock data, ensure data is usable to accelerate social and economic change, and promote good governance of data that gives people rights and power in the data economy. Over the next two years, we are committed to building a body of research, case studies, policy recommendations, and actionable guidance to help:

  1. Understand what good data architecture is, how it can enable the free flowing of data and the benefits this can offer. 
  2. Foster governance mechanisms and safeguards, including institutional oversight bodies and regulations, that give real rights to people and foster trust. 
  3. Create a shared understanding of progress with better metrics to gauge improvements and guide investments.  

We believe, if done right, data ecosystems can be designed and adopted to unlock data for improved public services, empower people, and fuel local start-up ecosystems with data that helps innovators compete with larger firms. 

With more knowledge, more investment, and more targeted action, we can create a more equitable data future for all.

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