In 2020 — the year COVID-19 spread across the globe — the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (the Global Partnership) worked together to play our part in responding to this unprecedented crisis.
Across Africa, we listened to what Governments wanted and found our network of partners were ready and willing to respond collectively to their needs. Building on five years of strong partnerships, in this time of crisis, our network came together to support each partner with vital resources, information, and experiences.
A common theme across our conversations was that COVID-19 intensified the urgent need for timely data. We worked in collaboration to bring partners together with the data, technology, and tools they needed.
COVID-19 also starkly demonstrated the need for that data to be produced, analyzed, and shared within a robust data system. Data systems take time to build securely and ethically, and we believe COVID-19 has clearly shown the need to continue creating them. There will be more pandemics and more global crises — including the ongoing climate crisis.
While focusing on the challenges of today, we did not forget about tomorrow. Our work has always been about the future of our societies and planet. The skills that have been built through these partnerships will also help Governments plan for sustainable development to mitigate climate change, track economic progress, and apply data science to get the best outcomes in health, education, and other critical challenges.
We need to be better prepared in the future. COVID-19 saw a rush for short-term fixes, creating a danger that poor-quality data will be used to inform important decisions or that data sharing oversteps its original purpose. To build a robust system for future crises, we need partnerships, we need skills in government to utilize those partnerships, and we need more public dialogue about what data is collected and shared, and why. This will mean more collaboration that builds trust between the public and private sectors, civil society, and academia, to lay the groundwork for future scaling up and flexibility when crises hit. Preparedness also requires stronger technical capacity in Governments in geospatial data and data science, not only for emergency response but also to improve data access and use across the range of government activities every day. At the Global Partnership and UNECA, we are working to ensure that the momentum gathered during the pandemic helps to build stronger systems for the future.
Ensuring that the vast potential of new data and technologies is used to make lives better, prevent crises, and protect our planet is a huge challenge. Getting it right will result in better policy and, ultimately, better lives. The Global Partnership and UNECA are committed to working with partners from every sector to build the data systems we need across the continent of Africa. We are bringing together organizations to interrogate assumptions and ask hard questions to make data partnerships more transparent and work together to protect rights and prevent data misuse.
This report offers insights into how and why data partnerships were so crucial during this unprecedented time and what was achieved when stakeholders from across the world came together to share resources. And it shows how this work will need to continue if the world is to be ready to meet future health crises and to tackle the looming threat of the climate emergency.
Countries were able to develop data dashboards featuring visual, analyzed data of confirmed cases, recoveries, deaths, and other indicators that could inform COVID-19 actions from Governments, businesses, and communities. These data hubs were able to provide immediate insights into the virus’s spread as well as the social and economic impacts. They also provided a foundation to add other metrics to be used for other needs, including future pandemics, health interventions, or climate change adaptation.
In many cases, government officials needed to rapidly acquire new skills to enable them to take advantage of new data sources and develop insights. The Global Partnership facilitated capacity-building partnerships to support immediate pandemic insights across 14 countries: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ghana, Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Somaliland, South Sudan, Togo, and Zambia.
New skills will outlast the pandemic and will strengthen data systems for the longer term, increasing the use of timely and inclusive data for decision-making across government. These data systems need to go beyond pandemics and encompass the broader economic and social impact of shocks such as pandemics, floods, and droughts.
Skills for the future
Looking to the future means focusing on skills.
The skill-building included data science, environment data, machine learning, earth observations, gender data, inclusive data, and administrative data. Over the course of the year, more than 100 people from 20 countries and 47 different institutions — spanning national statistics offices; ministries of environment, agriculture, health, gender, and planning; and various academic departments — were involved in training activities.
Through the Global Partnership and UNECA partnerships, we learned a lot about what was needed to support countries to adopt new technologies and methods. Fully utilizing new data involves bringing together partners who may not have worked together before. Trust is the bedrock, but trust underpinned by practical considerations focused on investment, sustainability, and accountability.
As they have worked together to tackle COVID-19, the Global Partnership and UNECA have kept sustainable futures as their key priorities. This pandemic was not the only health challenge nations faced over the last 18 months, and there will be more crises in the future. Data is crucial, and investments in data systems will pay off again and again.
One thing is clear: Trust cannot be forged overnight.
Sustained funding is needed to close the technical and social gap between supply-side technology providers, data holders, and academics and demand-side Governments in the Global South, and to establish global norms and cooperation on data governance to guide a common vision. We still have much to learn from one another.