Building data infrastructure is a key policy factor helping to ensure equitable access to opportunity in today’s world for the socioeconomically marginalized. With global data traffic increasingly exponentially over the past two decades, the need to stay connected is now stronger than ever before. Data infrastructure policy, a fundamental building block of a modern governance framework, helps to level the playing field in today’s information economy and thus, enhance equity for those at the bottom of the pyramid. This is something that no government today can overlook.
Without modern data infrastructure at the national level, government will be unable to provide affordable and reliable connectivity to its citizens. At the same time, without access to broadband at the local levels, people will be unable to leverage the power of the wealth of existing data. It will also hamper the capture of data of the local population by the government – so that their needs and preferences can adequately be taken into account in the design and provision of more cost-effective public and private services. This will not help topromote sustainable development.
Internet coverage does not necessarily translate into internet usage. Around 40 percent of the world’s population lives within range of a mobile signal, but fails to make adequate use of it. This share (known as the usage gap) has persisted stubbornly over time even as coverage has increased. This share rises to as high as 64 percent of the population in South Asia, and comprises around a billion people. There is also an important gender dimension to internet uptake, with globally 250 million fewer women than men using the internet, many of them concentrated in Asia. The strongest drivers of internet uptake are educational attainment and relationships with cyber-savvy people.
The WHO Chief recently said that Covid-related data should be made accessible as a public good. It is an insightful observation given that a key insight from the pandemic is the importance of timely, reliable and actionable data. Based on data availability, Covid-related deaths in several parts of the world have been minimized. Developing a comprehensive database in such circumstances calls for government to engage actively with the private sector, NGOs, academia and the scientific community to ensure that data remains accessible to the masses as a public good. With rising natural disasters all over the world, this is going to become increasingly important.
Data takes many forms. Public intent data – i.e. data collected with the intent of serving the public good by informing the design, execution, monitoring and evaluation of public programs and policies – is a prerequisite for the effective discharge of many government functions. This is especially true in developing countries like India. Such data includes administrative, census and survey data produced by government agencies, both at the state and Central levels. Innovatively combining intent data from both the public and private sectors can provide socioeconomic development strategies a powerfulthrust. This is the direction in which we need to proceed.