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Here's how we can bridge the 'data divide' for a more equitable future

Due to the data divide, data is predominantly used to create commercial value, rather than to solve pressing problems such as climate change and global inequality

Due to the data divide, data is predominantly used to create commercial value, rather than to solve pressing problems such as climate change and global inequalit Image: Myriam Jessier for Unsplash

Teresa Carlson
Kriss Deiglmeier
Chief Social Impact Officer , Splunk Inc.
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This article is part of: The Davos Agenda

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  • Due to the 'data divide', data is predominantly used to create commercial value, rather than to solve pressing social and environmental problems.
  • We must empower non-profits, governments and healthcare settings to use data more effectively.
  • This means understanding the root causes of the data divide, and having a long-term commitment to bridging it.

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic and rebuild society, leaders have a unique opportunity to reshape everything from societal priorities to fundamental business models. Data will be critical to guiding decisions, accelerating success and measuring progress. But just as the 'digital divide' has limited the internet's democratizing potential, another threat to equality is now looming on the horizon: the 'data divide.'

Today, ubiquitous and interconnected digital technologies are using data to enable and enrich decisions. It’s making businesses more competitive, igniting progress and catalyzing innovative disruption – but not for everyone. There is an increasing chasm between the rapidly expanding use of data to create commercial value, and the comparatively weak use of data to solve social and environmental challenges such as climate change and global inequality.

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The emerging 'data divide'

Today, the private sector far outpaces both public and nonprofit sectors in using data. In an IBM study, 67% of non-profits lacked expertise in the use of data analytics for their work. All too often, organizations working in fields such as healthcare, government, academia and non-profits lack the capability to solve their problems with data.

A COVID-19 testing project from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) is a telling reality. The project built a lab for COVID-19 testing in eight days, which could produce COVID-19 test results in 24 hours. They offered its services for free to county public health offices across California, but the flow of data was hindered because public health offices were using fax machines to send and receive test results.

To begin closing the data divide, we must first understand the factors fuelling it:

Access: data itself might be uncaptured or inaccessible.

Capability: lack of financial resources, technical talent and the knowledge to analyse and use data.

Investment choice: too often in all sectors, leaders do not prioritize investing resources in data analysis and management.

Actionable solutions: few real-world solutions can be scaled and replicated to demonstrate the power of data for social benefit.

By addressing these factors, nonprofits, the public sector and business can be empowered with a cloud-first, data-driven future capable of meeting our global challenges. History has taught us that equity doesn’t happen by accident. The data divide is still early in its evolution, and it’s imperative that we act urgently to tackle it. If we don’t, the chasm will become more challenging to bridge over time.

Tackling the data divide

Here are some of the ways in which we can start to tackle the data divide:

1. Understand the problem

We need to encourage and engage problem solvers from all sectors to harness the power of data for positive social and environmental impact. We need to understand the root causes of the data divide and uncover viable approaches to solve it. By researching and illuminating these issues, we can use data to know what’s working and how to make greater strides.

To reduce the data divide, we need to understand why it has formed
To reduce the data divide, we need to understand why it has formed Image: Splunk

2. Collaborate, partner and invest

The data divide requires a long-term commitment and global collaboration across business, civil society and government. We need to partner with and invest in foundations, data-driven nonprofits, promising startups and public sector customers that aim to tackle the problem. One startup we at Splunk invested in this year is, a data- and AI-driven platform that empowers job-seekers who have been or may be displaced by technology, automation or global crisis to be retrained for high-demand jobs of the future.

3. Build data-driven solutions

Imagine if the same use of data, machine learning and AI that sparked innovations like self-driving cars and digital assistants were applied to global inequities like climate change, healthcare, human rights and poverty.

In Tanzania, for example, the government supplemented household survey data collected once every 10 years — which is the basis for determining government spending — with satellite imagery data to improve timeliness and accuracy for combating poverty. In doing so, the government increased the resolution of its poverty picture eightfold, going from 20 regions to 169 districts.

Businesses can also be a powerful part of the solution, by donating software licenses, training and support.


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Bridging the data divide

Data unlocks knowledge, and knowledge unleashes power. This power can’t be reserved solely for the highest bidders. It must be multiplied and shared across sectors, organizations and communities.

So, let’s empower nonprofits, the public and business sectors with the data tools and talent they need to expand their impact efforts. Let’s put pressure on organizations to invest in using data to scale their positive impact on humanity at the same rate as their bottom line. Let’s enlist the help of the world’s top technical minds while training up new generations of data-literate problem solvers. It’s time for us to begin maximizing data’s value so that all of us can enjoy a safer, brighter, more prosperous future.

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