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  • David Porteous

The era of data infrastructure is here. History can help us capitalize on its potential.

2 mins read

Throughout time, infrastructure has proven a critical component of building healthy, prosperous, and interconnected societies. While physical infrastructure, such as bridges, roads, and railways, dominated the 19th and 20th centuries, in today’s rapidly digitizing world, good digital and data infrastructure are becoming increasingly important.

Well-designed, implemented, and governed data infrastructure is crucial. It creates the environment for data to be securely collected, accessed, and shared in ways that can be widely beneficial to people and communities across the world. And, while data infrastructure can provide entrance into the information economy, it also delivers essential and foundational digital services.

As we seek to implement effective data infrastructure, we can learn from history.

This recent shift begs the question – how does data infrastructure compare to previous types of (physical) infrastructure? And, just as importantly, what makes it unique? This spotlight paper outlines three important lessons to be learned from the history of infrastructure, explaining:

  1. The need to define the term “data infrastructure” for a more precise discussion.
  2. The importance of establishing principles to measure infrastructure’s impact on people.
  3. The different ways that infrastructure is shaped by how it’s financed.

Drawing on these lessons, we provide several key takeaways for the era of data infrastructure, illustrating how it is both similar to and different from its predecessors.

Essentially, good data infrastructure must promote a vision of positive digital transformation.

It’s clear that good data infrastructure, with its ability to provide essential public services, offers incredible promise. But to reach its full potential as a driver of inclusion, equality, and economic and social progress, it must be intentionally designed to benefit people. This is why it is crucial that we prioritize data infrastructure that facilitates trust, encourages participation, and promotes agency and choice for people globally.

Download the spotlight.

To learn more about good data infrastructure, take a look at our call-to-action paper, where we outline 7 “big bets” for promoting a positive data future – and how philanthropy can play a role in realizing it.