Fifth dialogue on Data and Technology for Development


The fifth dialogue of the Road to Bern via Geneva initiative titled The Power of Data for Development: Technology Transfer for Development was held online on 25 March 2021. The event was organised by the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN in Geneva and the Geneva Internet Platform (GIP), and was co-hosted by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the World Bank Group (WBG).


During the introduction, Amb. Jean-Pierre Reymond (Head, Innovation Partnerships, Permanent Mission of Switzerland in Geneva) opened the dialogue by putting this fifth session into context. The cross-sectoral Road to Bern via Geneva dialogues were initiated with the aim of preparing us for the next World Data Forum (WDF) which will take place in October 2021 in Bern. The first four sessions followed the life cycle of data in four steps: data collection, data protection, data sharing, and the use of data. Reymond stressed the relevance the fifth dialogue, which aligns with the recommendations of the previous WDF, by stating: ‘The data demand for the 2030 agenda will require urgent new solutions that leverage the power of new data sources and technologies through partnerships between national authorities, private sectors, civil society, academia and research institutions.’

Panel 1: Data for Development – The World Bank Group SDGs Atlas

The first panel discussion was led by the World Bank Group (WBG), the first co-host, and moderated by Ms Maria Dimitriadou (Special Representative to the UN and the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank). In line with the WBG’s publication 2020 Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals, the focus on data as a powerful tool for development which became even more relevant during COVID-19.

Mr Umar Serajuddin (Manager, Development Data Group, World Bank) opened with a presentation of the Atlas. He explained that working with data and working towards achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are collaborative processes. This is also a reason why the WBG takes care of integrating various internal players as well as external partners in its activities. The major goal of the Atlas is to communicate complex knowledge on international development in a simple manner. Sharing data insights with the broader public and communicating the SDGs in a more inclusive way are of key importance. With this aim, the Atlas pushes the boundaries of data visualisation and storytelling in regard to the SDGs in a way that everybody can understand them; both the general public and the experts. The latest version of the Atlas also includes considerations regarding the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the SDGs.

Ms Divyanshi Wadhwa and Ms Florina Pirlea, two of Serajuddin’s colleagues who work on the project, led the audience through the Atlas, showing the end results of their work and explaining some concrete examples.

Prof. Karl Aberer (Professor, Distributed Information Systems Laboratory EPFL) talked about data sourcing. He emphasised the challenges of the quality of data gathered through new, non-conventional data sources. These alternative methods of data collection, defined as rather participative, opportunistic, and social, include, for example, social media listening, image-sharing, and crowd-sensing. While they are usually cheaper to enforce in comparison to the more traditional data sources, their reliability may be more uncertain. For instance, these types of data sources are more prone to malicious behaviours and biased samples. Therefore, while they offer great opportunities, one should be conscious of potential quality biases and eventually address them.

Aberer further focused on social media as an interesting data source, since they are easily accessible and have the potential to provide a broad range of information. Examples of the applications of this data include crisis monitoring in the scope of humanitarian actions, as well as health monitoring in the context of COVID-19. After explaining two concrete examples, he concluded by stressing the trade-off that open, shared data brings: while their potential in the scope of development is great, they also pose great challenges to monitoring the credibility of gathered information and the obtained results.

Ms Silvia Quarteroni (Principal Data Scientist, Industry Collaborations, Swiss Data Science Center (SDSC)) brought an industry perspective to the dialogue. In her view, a major goal is to accelerate the adoption of data science in different fields, including academia and the industry. Through collaborations with different types of businesses, she identified a key common requirement, i.e. the access to the right types of data that can answer the right types of questions. Data should be of sufficient quality and visualised in an appropriate way. Quarteroni also stressed two additional relevant dimensions of the analysis. First, efforts should be made towards exploring ways to make sense of textual, unstructured data which can provide indicators regarding, for example, well-being. Second, an important dimension is the creation and development of platforms that can reproduce data science. Reproducible data is an essential goal that artificial intelligence (AI) should have today.

Mr Shekhar Shah (Director General, National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), India) highlighted the tremendous progress and advancements that have been made in the field of data science and technology in the past years. In his view, data is essentially a vehicle for persuading people, particularly policymakers. It is also a means to achieve greater accountability and trust. The current goal is to harness the progress made, and ultimately use data to convince those who may not have the time or skills to interpret it. Data should be used to tell stories that would enable people to make the right decisions that are important for millions of lives. These are the types of the overarching motives and missions driving both the collection and analysis of data.

Panel 2: Technology for Development – EPFL Tech4Dev

Ms Hilda Liswani (Sustainability Engagement Manager, Tech4Dev, EPFL Vice Presidency for Innovation) introduced the second part of the dialogue which was led by Tech4Dev, the second co-host, on the topic of technology transfer. After giving a general overview of the EPFL, Liswani contextualised the Tech4Dev programme. As part of the broader Tech4Impact initiative, Tech4Dev aims to steer collaborative innovation and research opportunities between researchers and NGOs in order to co-design and co-implement targeted technologies and innovations in the Global South.

Liswani emphasised the necessity of such initiatives by mentioning major challenges in technological development. As a main concern, the speed and scale of progress is being impeded by digital infrastructure gaps as well as disparities in digital skills. She stated that efforts should be made to bridge these gaps. For achieving the SDGs, the ‘business-as-usual’ approach and relying on existing solutions is not sufficient. Simply delivering technologies available in developed countries to countries in development is not an appropriate and efficient method since these transfers are complex and require context-specific considerations. It is important to keep in mind that while technology and innovation are great tools for development, humans remain the primary players in making the world move forward, and thus, each stakeholder group holds a fair share of accountability for contributing to the challenge.

Digital technology and connectivity are integral to how our world functions. Therefore, successful development would need to reduce the gap between those who can access these tools and those who cannot. Empowering individuals to grasp opportunities and taking a problem-led rather than technology-led approach is crucial.

Ms Beatrice Scarioni (Head, Tech4Dev, EPFL Vice Presidency for Innovation) talked about Tech4Dev’s mission, i.e. to bring technologies where they are most needed. Pioneering the needs-based approach, the initiative brings two diverse but complementary groups together: EPFL researchers and NGOs. Officially launched in December 2019, Tech4Dev has now eight collaborative projects that work on bringing inclusive innovation to the field.

Mr Grégoire Castella (EPFL Humanitarian Tech Hub, Essential Tech Center) presented the activities of the EPFL Essential Tech Center. The conviction driving the efforts is that technology and innovation should be designed in order to serve those who need it the most. At the point where labs and the society meet, the Essential Tech Center mainly operates in three fields: sustainable development, humanitarian actions, and peace promotion. The first step in the process consists of helping organisations to define and explore their needs. Once defined, these needs are matched up with experts. With cooperation being the fundamental value of the centre, the two groups then meet and start co-designing solutions. As a part of the Essential Tech Center, the Humanitarian Tech Hub takes a similar approach, but specifically addresses the humanitarian sector.

Ms Ghada Kalifa (Regional Director, Microsoft Philanthropies for Middle East and Africa) brought insights on how the private sector can contribute to reducing the gaps in technology distribution. Great opportunities exist, but it is also a responsibility of the private sector to ensure that technologies benefit everyone on the planet, as well as the planet itself. An important topic in this scope is digital skilling, which became particularly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if countries in development have access to technologies, the lack of adequate knowledge renders this access mostly ineffective. Digital skilling can be viewed as consisting of at least three elements. First, it includes fundamental digital skilling, or in other terms, gaining appropriate knowledge to be able to properly use digital tools and technology. Second, it includes creating opportunities for talented people to become creators of technology and innovators themselves. Third, it includes providing the opportunities for job seekers to be reskilled and (re)enter the job market. Crucial in this undertaking is the collaborative work of partners, development agencies, NGOs, as well as government agencies, to make sure that the work delivered is relevant and impactful in specific local contexts.

Mr Edward Hsu (Senior Adviser, Disruptive Technologies, World Bank) presented the work of the World Bank in regard to digital transfer. A major activity consists of working with countries and governments in identifying and defining the foundational elements that need to be established to bring digital development and successfully transfer technologies to these countries. The existing connectivity gap is a core issue and can be viewed as having five dimensions: connectivity, skills, entrepreneurship, platforms, and fintech. The Digital Economy for Africa Initiative evaluates a country’s situation based on where it stands in regard to these five dimensions. This type of assessment is conducted worldwide, including Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Other topics are also considered, such as data infrastructure and cybersecurity, in order to address risks that these countries may face. Ultimately, it is about finding ways to directly help governments to actually harness technological solutions.

Discussion among panellists

On best practices in technology transfer

From his experience with the Essential Tech Center, Castella noted that there is no framework or set of practices that would fit all cases. Rather, different paths are usually followed, and adequate strategies have to be developed for every solution. Examples include the creation of start-ups in order to make a product available to the market, and the direct transfer of technologies to organisations.

On ways to include best local communities into the process

Castella feels the challenge emerges from two considerations. On the one hand, it can be difficult to engage with local communities and preserve a space for innovation in the contexts of emergency and insecurity. On the other, innovation can be challenging when humanitarian organisations opt to plan short- rather than long-term. There are however processes put into place to tackle these issues and include local communities to a greater extent. Partnering with organisations is an important helper in facilitating these efforts.

On the diffusion of technology and the transfer of ownership to those who need it the most

Scarioni stated that the aim is to bring technology out of the lab and into the field, in order to test and scale it as soon as possible. Taking a bottom-up, needs-based approach is a priority, since technologies developed in one part of the world will not be the most appropriate ones for beneficiaries in other, very different, contexts. Partner NGOs are key contributors in this undertaking, as they provide information on challenges that they see on the ground. These issues are then shared within the EPFL community which works on bringing direct solutions. Monitoring is also performed from an early stage. Various key performance indicators (KPIs) and impact metrics enable us to follow and assess the impact achieved throughout the different phases.

On tools used by Tech4Dev to further facilitate inclusion

Scarioni feels that Global South partners are crucial players in this process. These include NGOs, universities in the Global South, and other social entrepreneurs and impact ventures. The use of online, collaborative, and brainstorming tools also helps break down boundaries and facilitate collaboration. Facilitating components include monitoring and reporting platforms to which both partners and researchers from the Global South can add their data, inputs, and metrics in an efficient way throughout the life cycle.

On investments in local capabilities

Hsu placed the fostering of local entrepreneur ecosystems as an element of central importance. The availability of fundamental infrastructures and the ability to access them are essential, and also constitute a challenge that needs to be addressed. Competition among players and on a global level is strongly hindered by the great differences in the availability of these resources. Beyond infrastructure, skills are also crucial. Other key factors include enabling environments, data governance within particular countries, as well as the relative costs of payments.

On what can be adopted by nation states when working with third parties

Hsu stated that this constitutes yet another challenge. A lot of great work in technology has been done and is happening, but finding innovative ways of procurement and ways in which governments can scale up solutions is difficult because of outdated ways of thinking, among others.

On the role of the private sector to further expand connectivity

Kalifa expressed that expanding connectivity is truly a target on the agenda of the private sector. Efforts have been made to provide underserved populations with various technologies and innovations, such as renewable energies and broadband internet connections. A key feature is to make these solutions affordable. The private sector’s activities towards this goal may not be enough. The private and public sectors (complemented by financial and regulatory support) should join together and bring down the total costs of connectivity. This is a complex task and requires all stakeholders to join forces to address this challenge.

Closing Remarks

Mr Jovan Kurbalija (Founding Director, DiploFoundation; Head, Geneva Internet Platform (GIP)) concluded this fifth cross-sectoral dialogue. Beyond summarising the discussion, he brought up additional points to reflect upon. While very advanced and powerful AI tools have been created and keep on being developed at a great pace, thinking about their essence, the concepts around them, and ultimately making sense of them and anchoring them into reality is at least as important. Philosophers, critical thinkers, and non-technical perspectives on technology have to be included in the discourse. Without them, technology is no longer a tool serving humans, but takes over the central role. One should remain open to discoveries and surprises, in the exciting journey that is ahead.

Ms Aleksandra Bojanić