Data: The New Currency of Davos

Written by Jessica Espey

The Blockchain + AI + Human Summit 2019 in Davos, Switzerland.  Source : John Werner

The Blockchain + AI + Human Summit 2019 in Davos, Switzerland. Source: John Werner


The world’s economy is brought into the limelight every January in the small town of Davos, Switzerland, host to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. Heads of state, titans of industry, and other glitterati congregate in this snowy mountain resort to discuss major trends in–and risks to–global prosperity, and they are increasingly focused on technological ones. And in this era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is tech-driven data that is paramount. Google, Facebook, and Bitcoin–to name just a few–have banners adorning the roadsides, while tech consultancy firms like SAP and Esri will stop at nothing to get their card (or cup) in your hand via their free coffee stalls.

Jessica Espey at the Blockchain + AI + Human Summit 2019.  Source : John Werner

Jessica Espey at the Blockchain + AI + Human Summit 2019. Source: John Werner

But this year, thanks to MIT Media Lab and TCS Consulting, the power and potential of data and new data technologies was presented in a new light at the Blockchain + AI + Human Summit. MIT and TCS brought together more than 60 world-leading data scientists and technologists to reflect upon the power of artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and other data technologies not only for corporate profit, but also for human insight and social impact–as they put it, for "magic."

On behalf of TReNDS, I had the great pleasure of being invited to speak at this event, on a panel on sustainability, alongside representatives from U.K.-based AI firm Cognition X, the Demand Institute, and the Group on Earth Observations. For 30 minutes, we banged the drums for the sustainable development agenda and the imperative to use new technologies for social, economic, and environmental good. The audience was engaged, dare I say, interested even (their interest likely piqued by more illustrious speakers like David Attenborough pitching the same argument to heads of state a bit further up the road). But one couldn't help but notice glazed expressions when any mention of collaboration with the public sector came up.

The prevailing spirit of Davos is that private enterprise can achieve anything–and indeed it can when profits are the main incentive. But as we hurtle towards critical environmental tipping points, ocean acidification, food shortages, and uncontrolled urban expansion, public and private collaboration is essential. Only if governments set the right policy and legislative frameworks–incentivizing companies to invest in and value positive environmental and social returns–will we build a fit-for-purpose modern economy that will carry us all to the end of the 21st century (even beyond). Fundamental to this is trust: the necessity to encourage greater cooperation between public and private entities and confidence in each other's respective roles and responsibilities.

From a data perspective, building trust is about overcoming our human Tendency to Resist the Urge to Share Things (T.R.U.S.T). All too often companies are worried governments will misuse their data or won’t uphold the contracts they’ve set with their customers, while governments are worried the data companies have gathered aren’t of the same standard and rigor of official statistics.

To the Blockchain + AI + Human Summit stage I brought a call to action, encouraging public and private data sharing so that governments (particularly in low-income/less capacitated countries) can leapfrog costly and time-consuming data collection methods. It is the contributions of all of these stakeholders that will bring governments the essential data they need to monitor progress on poverty, on wellbeing, on climate risk, on biodiversity loss–not sometime in the future, now.

There are loads of great examples of this kind of cooperation–telecommunications companies sharing data to track disease spread, or TReNDS’ own project in Colombia fostering data collaboration between the government and local Chambers of Commerce. But given the scale of the sustainable development challenge, anecdotal examples are not enough. These success stories need to become institutionalized, standardized practice.

I concluded my remarks by highlighting two scalable solutions:

  1. removing complex legal barriers to partnership by sharing examples of successful collaborative agreements (as TReNDS is aiming to do through our new Contracts for Data Collaboration initiative); and

  2. scaling and opening access to new, secure data exchange technologies such as blockchain at low cost.

Through this kind of access, public and private actors can better share information with fewer, if any, risks of data breaches–a major concern of all (and not without reason).

Collaboration between the public sector and private technologists isn’t just about doing good, it also makes good commercial sense. There are many governments around the world looking to better data sharing methods, including technologies like blockchain. Not to mention there are huge opportunities available from better access to and understanding of public service data. It’s time the companies at Davos took a mile-long view to see the huge potential of collaboration in support of sustainable development, for their businesses and for the world.