Data and artificial intelligence (AI) can be a high-impact tool for public good with the potential to counter rising inequality, climate change, threats to democracy and public health, and other global challenges.
Harnessing these tools to their full capacity will require investing in a diverse global workforce of skilled data practitioners, while overcoming funding challenges and a digital divide between wealthy and developing countries that still has one-third of the world’s people without internet access.
These are among the findings in a 68-page white paper on the harnessing of Data for Social Impact (DSI), released Wednesday by the data.org at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“Accelerate Aspirations: Moving Together to Achieve Systems Change” was compiled from a July 2022 survey and stakeholder interviews with representatives of 775 public, private and nonprofit organizations operating in the social impact sector.
The report builds on the findings of last year’s data.org report, “Workforce Wanted: Data Talent for Social Impact,” which identified 3.5 million data-related job opportunities in developing countries.
Researchers involved with this latest report found that despite the continuing digital divide and gap in global internet connectivity, the increased use of web-enabled mobile phones and smartphones in low- and middle-income countries is driving the use of more data and AI-based interventions and solutions worldwide.
The report’s authors also documented how DSI is continuing to transform and deliver new ways to analyze giant datasets, advance predictive models, and harness machine learning for societal and environmental benefit.
Researchers found that 90 percent of respondents to the July 2022 survey are committed to supporting continued investment in new data tools, training and staff but lack the infrastructure, capacity and resources to sustain such a commitment over the long term.
“Resources are scarce for a field that requires expensive tools and skills to thrive,” the authors wrote. “These enduring challenges result in work being done at an activity and project level, but do not create a coherent set of building blocks to constitute a strong and healthy field that is capable of solving a new class of systems-level problems.”
To address this challenge, data.org is implementing a plan to create knowledge hubs that will be used to train 1 million data practitioners around the world over the next 10 years.
“We have the power to build — and fund — a data-driven social impact sector that drives affordable and innovative ways of addressing the multitude of challenges we face,” said Danil Mikhailov, executive director of data.org. “But to do so, we must be thoughtful, open, and bold. As this emerging sector develops, we must also ensure that it is more coordinated and builds on principles of diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility (IDEA).”
Stronger funding models with longer time horizons, more flexible funding, and better coordination will sustain this commitment, the authors wrote. “A more diverse, global workforce with interdisciplinary perspectives can provide a foundation for data for social impact work that is both effective and just,” Mikhailov said.
The organization data.org is a joint initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth dedicated to increasing the use of data science to address societal and global challenges.
The full report and executive summary can be found at www.data.org/reports/accelerate.
The organization is also hosting a Jan. 24 webinar on the report’s findings that is open to the public. Details can be found at www.data.org/events.