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Opinion Updated: 05 November 2018

Why is the data revolution failing to make good on its promise to make a difference?

Elena Alfaro, Head of Data & Open Innovation in BBVA shares in this article her insights after attending the United Nations World Data Forum, where businesses and institutions were urged step up their commitment to deliver on the promises of data as driver of growth in society and key lever in the achievement of the Sustainable Development goals.

I was lucky to be part of this year’s edition of the World Data Forum, an event organized by the United Nations with support from its partners, that was hosted in Dubai on October 22-24. The main purpose of the event is contributing to devise ways to leverage the so-called "data revolution" to drive and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations for 2030. This was the second edition of the event, and just as last year’s (held in Cape Town), BBVA was invited to take part in one of its keynote panels.

The panel that I was invited to speak on, 'Big Data for Sustainable Development: what does it take to get to the next level?' was hosted in the main auditorium, an impressive venue with a seating capacity of 1,500. It was organized by UN Global Pulse, an initiative launched by the UN Secretary-General in 2011, aimed at promoting the use of big data and advanced analytics to contribute to the development of vulnerable populations. The initiative has already set up laboratories in New York, Jakarta (Indonesia) and Kampala (Uganda), which have developed dozens of innovative high-impact projects. BBVA and the UN Global Pulse have been building ties since the initiative was created, and have partnered in two specific initiatives: Measurement of the impact of Hurricane Odile on Mexico, and Data for Climate Action.

The panel I was part of focused on the idea that, despite years of work to leverage the benefits of big data and new methodologies (machine learning, AI, advanced visualization…) for the greater good (‘data for social good’), the use of these technologies by governments and public institutions remains fairly limited. As for the private sector and its potentially key role as data donor, so far we’ve only witnessed a handful of initiatives that truly pursue this aim of contributing to the greater good, promoted mainly within the telecommunications industry – by Telefónica and Vodafone and the sector’s main organization, the GSM Association - and other isolated examples across other industries, such as BBVA and MasterCard in the financial industry. And the question was, why is this happening and what can we do to change things?

The panel’s main findings revolved around the barriers and challenges, and around potential solutions, that can be summarized as follows:

  • Awareness, prioritization and funding: Public institutions need to launch initiatives to promote the use of these technologies in decision making processes. Private enterprises, are the great generators of data. This data, conveniently anonymized and aggregated can help improve the lives of many people and society at large, raising awareness about the importance of the widespread use of massive and quality datasets by institutions.
  • Focus on the impact and the possibility to implement the findings of the analyses, as well as on the sustainability and recurrence of their results, versus pilot studies that take place one time and are never repeated.
  • Enhancement of skills and capabilities at the organizations that currently generate the data and the reports based on which decisions are made.. Statistical techniques can coexist with the new big data technologies, because they are complementary, but demand making a level of effort in training and understanding that, in general, has not been made.
  • Data access, especially regarding the data generated through the consumption of digital services, which today are controlled by the leading tech firms. The panel also addressed the ways in which the so-called ‘data philanthropy’ can be promoted in a sustainable manner, what benefits it can bring to companies, and how to make sure that it is safe, etc.
  • Privacy and security of the data shared and used in the analyses, agreed anonymization techniques, security certificates and standards, etc.

Oddly enough, in essence, these points also apply to the approach followed by private companies to maximize the value of their datasets and have a lot to do with the plans that we are implementing at BBVA to develop new skills among our taskforce, define a global strategy and create the ideal platforms to work with data, together with a clear definition of their governance, management and control.

Personally, being invited to participate and share our point of view in this multilateral event was truly an honor, especially after realizing that, as a company, we are regarded as a ‘good practice’ and a champion (the term used by the organization) in the use of data for the common good.

And, of course, I come back with an enhanced feeling of responsibility to contribute to help raise awareness about all the work we still need to do to apply the power of big data and Artificial Intelligence to improve our customers’ lives. We can also make a huge difference in society.