Marianne Nari Fisher is the head of operations at World Data Lab, which produces sophisticated global demography and economic models with storytelling elements through visual webtools. In particular, they provide support for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a number of socioeconomic targets for global development by 2030. WDL hosted a convening at Bellagio from 21-24 February 2022 called “Revolutionizing the Development Sector with Big Data: Harnessing Geospatial Technology to Enhance Sustainable Development Goals and Climate Data Modeling.”
Here, Marianne reports on some of the conversations and discussions that took place, and how they moved WDL’s work forward.
If you’d asked me two years ago if I would’ve missed water cooler conversations, I would’ve happily said “No! Get rid of the water cooler!” But I could not tell you how happy I was for us to be standing around coffee machines, and it was especially refreshing after two years of not having it in-person. This was further compounded by the ability to bring together a truly global network to Bellagio, inclusive of the North American, European, South American and African continents. The convening in Bellagio was really a turning point in terms of our ability to take project work to the next level, to revitalize and renew our enthusiasm of—and in particular for identifying the next steps to push ourselves to that 2030 agenda, with engagement from figures hailing from the Brookings Institution, People-Centered Internet, World Bank, and more.
We at WDL are fortunate to have now had three events at Bellagio. The first two were focused on SDGs 1 and 2, around poverty and hunger, and the outcomes from that have been immense. We’ve developed full-fledged tools dedicated to tracking poverty and hunger on an extremely granular and subnational basis.
Our group of data scientists, officials and other practitioners are also developing a world emissions clock at the moment in connection to SDG 13 on Climate Action, and also in support of the German presidency of the G7 in 2022. This model and tool will track all greenhouse gases, broken down into 20 sectors. At Bellagio, we found that maybe the total number of emissions wasn’t necessarily the most important data point to showcase. It’s good to have the number, it’s good to understand the number, but the number without context is not as helpful. We instead explored different and more effective ways of framing it, such as assessing potential policy changes on a country level, or even the impact of breaking down greenhouse gas emissions on an individual level. It was helpful for us in terms of understanding it beyond the data points, and it also put it into context in such a way that any member of the public can access the tool and get that strong takeaway.
Our projects this year also include a number of additional SDGs, including SDG 8—“decent work”. In support of this WDL is developing an “employment clock”, and we were also unveiling work that we’ve been doing to expand the concept of poverty through SDG 1 by expanding the definition of ‘internet poverty’, and how access to the internet affects one’s ability to work and study, and a number of different accessibility issues.
The idea was: “How much do people need to spend of their total gross income to access the internet?” And this led to a lot of complicated discussions. How do we charge these mobile phones? Where do we even get the electricity for mobile internet? It was decided that one gigabyte would be considered a basic package, and that the threshold for spending shouldn’t be more than ten percent of somebody’s gross income, otherwise they’d be considered vulnerable. And, of course, we assessed what it means to be connected to the wider world, not just in terms of information, but also to facilitate work and educational pursuits, especially in the world of covid.
We hadn’t initially anticipated that this would be an outcome of the event, but after outlining the effects of the last two years and WDL modelling techniques folks were saying, “Why don’t we have this for assessing covid globally? Why can’t we track its effect on global health and mortality?” And, well, we can build that. I think that that was extremely exciting, to have something new that we didn’t originally anticipate as a key exploratory takeaway from Bellagio.
Another planned theme was the rise of Asia and Africa, but there were still some surprising and remarkable outcomes. Of course, this is something we’ve been reading about in The Economist—the world has watched these economies blossom on a continental scale—but at this convening it became clear that these economies are already here. The rise of the middle class across Asia and Africa is already having enormous implications beyond politics, beyond economics, and beyond just access to markets. Additionally, we talked about the fourth industrial revolution—machine learning, AI, robotics—and the future that’s leading to, and how we’re seeing how those regions will build up those capabilities.
The World Data Lab motto is “making everyone count”—so how do we make everyone count beyond just the publication of survey data? This led to discussions about how there’s still so much to leverage from the public sector from a demography standpoint. Statistics offices have a wealth of information, and people in the room at the convening had developed techniques for visualizations which break those numbers down and make it accessible for all. The group also found that there were ways to model consumption that hadn’t been looked at before, such as using geospatial analysis tools and satellite data to look at what’s called “poverty in darkness”. Looking at lights in the dark with satellites and extrapolating the connections to GDP, industry, who’s living where, types of buildings—that was extremely helpful for us, not just in terms of past models we’ve built like the poverty or hunger clocks, but also for how we can take that to the next level, to assess sociodemographic variables at extremely granular levels.
We were talking about the employment clock, and internet poverty, and we were able to actually merge some ideas together—for example, how can we facilitate more work to those who are what we call “underemployed” or “informally employed”? This is when a person is not employed or unemployed. Maybe they work a few hours on the side, or maybe despite an education, or societal norms, there are numerous barriers to work. This affects, for example, married women in rural areas. How can we help these groups to leverage their skills and contribute their assets to the global economy?
Bellagio was an opportunity for us to come together and really be reminded of why we’re doing this work, and our shared humanity. When we’re all talking to each other online with the expectation that we can be called away at any moment, whether it’s from a phone call or another day of back-to-back meetings, it’s very different when you’re walking on the shores of Lake Como, and someone taps you on the shoulder or takes you by the hand, and says, “Let’s have this conversation, let’s take this outside, let’s take a walk, let’s sit in the sun, let’s have a coffee.” You’re able to really get into the details of the ideas or connections that you’re trying to form, and really take those to the next level.
We’d like to thank Marianne and World Data Lab for organising the convening as well as their continuing contribution to the network. Here are some other ways you can join the conversation:
Find out more about World Data Lab’s mission to make everyone count and how you might be able to help.