Chief Statisticians at the UN World Data Forum Call for a Global Data Convention

Data. The single word that defines our age.

Data. The ubiquitous, globalized, commodity.

Easily shared, duplicated and traded, the glue that binds and drives the digital economy, the cloud, blockchain, the Internet-of-Things, and even our politics. They offer promise but also peril – they are a tool for liberation, but also potentially a weapon for exploitation. 

Data transcend borders, challenge national sovereignty and are increasingly being thought of as a new form of capital. While some countries and regions have begun to try and tackle the challenge of how to regulate the collection and use of data, such a piecemeal, fragmented approach risks creating barriers to production, trade, innovation and cooperation. 

For so long, we have thought of data as an input. A tool to inform policy. But now data are a policy issue in and of themselves.

Given the importance of data for the modern digital economy, for surveillance, for AI, there will be few more important geopolitical issues in the coming years. 

Hence why chief statisticians of the international statistical system are calling for a Global Data Convention. Chief statisticians first made this call during the World Data Forum on World Statistics Day, in October 2020.

The topic is having traction in the international statistics community and will be the central theme at the next World Bank’s World Development Report, in 2021, which will be dedicated to data issues.

Given the importance of data for the modern digital economy, for surveillance, for AI, there will be few more important geopolitical issues in the coming years. 

They understand that we need such a convention to safeguard the safe and ethical use of data to support a social contract that strikes a balance between full use of data for development and wellbeing and the protection of security, privacy, and human rights, and between commercial use and public good. 

A Global Data Convention would constitute an integrated set of data principles and standards that unite national governments, public institutions, private sector, civil society organizations and academia.

These would include elements such as: privacy of personal data; data accessibility; data exchange; data interoperability; and transparency, to name a few.

While these issues are being widely discussed and appear to be broadly agreed, they lack universally accepted definitions and ways to operationalize them in practice.  

Two important issues here: firstly, there any many players from different parts of the data ecosystem calling for a convention – or something similar – but they are using different terms. A Digital Geneva Convention, a Data Commons, a Bretton Woods for AI, to name a few. These all sound very different, but perhaps not quite as different as first appears.

When you distil these issues down, they are all essentially about data.  Data can be used for a huge variety of purposes – local, national and global public policy, commercial and emergencies – by a wide array of actors.

This creates some broad challenges:

1. How do we balance the well-being of people and communities, ensuring they can gain insight from data to improve their lives, with the need to protect their privacy and shield them from misuse and abuse of data?  

2. What is the appropriate equilibrium between proprietary and public good data? What data should be protected as a public good, not just in the economic sense, but in the broader social sense? 

3. How can data best support a competitive, thriving, and diverse market for innovations that improve and enrich human lives?  A Global Data Convention could provide a way to ensure that data are safeguarded as a global public good and as a resource to achieve equitable and sustainable development.

Key to such an approach would be a set of universal principles and standards that set out the elements of responsible and ethical handling and sharing of data and the global institution or institutions that would provide incentives for applying these principles and overseeing their consistent application across different communities. 

Modern data ecosystems are not controlled by states alone, so any convention, commons, or Bretton Woods type agreement will require a multitude of stakeholders and signatories – states, civil society, and the private sector at the very least.

A Global Data Convention could also help avoid a fragmented approach where each country or region adopts their own solution by promoting some common expectations and approaches. This would give individuals and enterprises confidence that data relevant to them carries similar protections and obligations no matter where they are collected or used. 

A Global Data Convention could move beyond establishing ethical principles and create a global architecture that also includes standards and incentives for compliance.

To do so it should build upon the existing canon of international human rights and other conventions, laws and treaties that set out useful principles and compliance mechanisms and build upon them. Such an architecture could be the foundation for rethinking the data economy, promoting open data, encouraging data exchange, and facilitating trade mechanisms. 

To support the convention, a global institution(s) will be needed to bring together the many data communities and ecosystems, that comprise not only of national governments, private sector and civil society but also including those who represent artificial intelligence, digital and IT services.

This is a critical point.

Modern data ecosystems are not controlled by states alone, so any convention, commons, or Bretton Woods type agreement will require a multitude of stakeholders and signatories – states, civil society, and the private sector at the very least.

These institution(s) would maintain and update data standards, oversee accountability frameworks, and support mechanisms to facilitate the exchange and responsible use of data.