Policymakers need data on us despite privacy fears | Larry Elliott, Economics Editor

NOTnext slide please. We quickly understood how it worked. Chris Whitty would give the word and post a chart detailing progress in the fight against Covid-19. There are memes and mugs to commemorate the slogan of England’s Chief Medical Officer.

Whitty’s presentations detailed infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths. Within weeks of the pandemic arriving in early 2020, the public was aware of the R number – a way to gauge how fast the virus was spreading.

Over the months, public concern over Covid-19 has waned and it now lags well behind inflation in the list of concerns voters care about. Rising prices have led to increased scrutiny of how Britain calculates the cost of living, including from chef and activist Jack Monroe. The Office for National Statistics calculates the annual inflation rate by collecting the price of 700 goods and services from various places and online, but says it wants to know more about price movements and changing consumer habits.

It is almost certain that the next big economic debate will be about whether or not the UK is heading into recession. In 2008, production had already fallen for several months before being reflected in quarterly gross domestic product figures.

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 connects these three examples is data. Governments have always seen the connection between data and policy decisions. William I’s Domesday Book was one of the first stabs in a national audit for 11th-century England. In 1801 concern over whether there would be enough food for a growing population prompted the first census covering England, Scotland and Wales.

Over time, the state has learned more and more about how its citizens live, to the point that there is a legitimate debate to be had about the invasion of privacy. However, it is not just governments. The use of loyalty cards gives merchants information about our consumption habits. Tech companies like Facebook and Google know what each user is interested in and tailor the ads that appear accordingly.

Finding the right balance is not easy. Ministers needed accurate data to monitor the impact of lockdown on infection rates. The Bank of England needs enough information to be able to calibrate the right level of interest rates. Life has changed since the early 1930s, when a lack of accurate and comprehensive data hampered the response to the Great Depression in the United States.

But not everywhere. In some parts of the world, investment in data collection and analysis is extremely low. Four out of 10 deaths worldwide go unrecorded. More than a quarter of children overall and more than half of children under five in sub-Saharan Africa were not registered at birth. A Google search of the world’s population gives the figure of 7.9 billion, but that’s really just an educated guess. The same goes for human development indicators such as infant mortality or literacy rates.

There is more. Only one in six countries have sufficient data to report on progress towards climate change goals and, on average, the latest emissions data is from 2015. Two-thirds of countries have been forced to report a planned census due to the pandemic. The UN has a set of Sustainable Development Goals to achieve by 2030: in only six of the 17, more than two-thirds of countries have data to report.

A document released jointly by the UN, the World Bank and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (a network of more than 600 partners ranging from tech giants to civil society groups) says the problems are the most urgent where the challenges are greatest. Data gaps are glaring for gender in all areas of development: economic opportunity, environment, health, human security and public participation.

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

Two other ingredients are needed. The first is money, because after a 10-year period in which support for data systems stabilized, there is now a funding gap of over $1 billion (£800m sterling). For donor countries, spending money on statisticians just isn’t 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 $500 million over the next 10 years, which they say could serve as a catalyst for billions of dollars in development assistance to overseas and private sector funding.

The second ingredient is governance, where there is a need to ensure that low-income countries are not deprived of data as they have too often been deprived of their natural resources. A long operating history means ensuring that the potential benefits of improved data are shared equitably. Facebook is growing in Africa, as is Huawei: guarantees are needed to ensure that this investment serves the public good.

Nevertheless, 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 he wants faster growth in the poorest countries, he needs better data. Making decisions in the dark is unreasonable. Next slide please.

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