Last week, I was fortunate to represent PARIS21 at the 2023 UN World Data Forum in Hangzhou, alongside my colleague Yu Tian. We returned home on the weekend exhausted but incredibly happy about the event and its outcomes. We hosted or co-hosted eight sessions, greeting thousands of local and international delegates at our exhibition booth and shooting video interviews with participants.
If one thing is true, it is that China is an expert at organising large events like the UNWDF, and in style. The city of Hangzhou was transformed to make it a welcoming space for international delegates, with excellent and highly visible signage throughout the city, a wonderful exhibition venue and well organised logistics. The Chinese hosts even organised a drone fireworks-like show for residents and visitors throughout the week to celebrate the theme of the event.
We used this data forum as an opportunity to showcase the work of PARIS21 partners and strengthen collaboration with existing and new networks, but also to connect to the China National Bureau of Statistics (CNBS) and other private, government and civil society actors from the country and region. In this respect, we were delighted to have many conversations with CNBS and private sector entities that are doing such interesting, advanced work in remote sensing, AI and robotics.
Here are a few things that we learned last week:
Data is power
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Chris Maloney coined one of the most memorable and oft-cited phrases of this year’s event. In one sense his remark is straightforward: those who have the information that they need to understand the world will be in a better position to make effective decisions. Where information asymmetries exist, somebody is usually at a disadvantage.
But Chris was making a point that is both broader and more subtle. In one sense, “data is power” is a rallying cry to advocate for the inclusion of marginalised groups and those that are the greatest risk of being left behind. It describes both an impetus for change and an explanation for why change sometimes happens slowly, or not at all.
In another sense, “data is power” is also a useful organising principle around which to frame discussions around partnerships and cooperation. We in the international community sometimes fail to consider our relative positions of resources, voice and power when collaborating with national and local partners. Thinking about the value of data in conveying power on various actors, including ourselves, can help us to create partnerships that are maximally beneficial to all the entities within.
China is digital
In China, for anything that you want to do, there’s an app for that. As soon as you land in China, you’ll notice that the mobile phone reigns supreme for virtually every task (and this is one of the reasons that every 100 meters you can find a colourful mobile phone battery pack station – all that mobile phone use drains your battery!) Want to pay for a taxi or buy a few groceries? You’ll simply take a photo of the proprietor’s QR code and your payment is processed. Good luck using your credit card or cash – almost nobody has facilities for this.
The broader world is also incredibly interconnected. Your mobile navigation app will give you a huge amount of information – from how crowded an area is in real-time to how long it’ll take for the next traffic light to change. Data is obviously a core part of the Chinese government’s strategy and for this reason it was great to spend a week talking shop with the dozens of Chinese companies and organisations that attended the UNWDF.
Overcoming misinformation in society is like introducing VAR in football
Credit goes to the always informative and funny Nnenna Nwakanma, a digital policy, advocacy and cooperation strategist and fixture of the UN World Data Forum scene for this one. She provided this insightful analogy of how we can collectively fight misinformation during the Open Data Watch / SDSN Trends session, Data in the age of misinformation: Building trust by bridging communities.
Nnenna’s point is that when VAR (“video assisted referee”) was introduced into football, it was initially controversial. Spectators and teams alike had been used to referee determinations when it comes to goal scoring, but eventually the football community, aided by technology, decided that a new approach was needed. Ultimately, this decision was to prove correct, as it increased the accuracy of the game and ultimately served to strengthen trust in decision-making.
Fighting misinformation and disinformation in the digital age is similar. We, the international community, must work closely with countries and local actors to collectively decide on how the rules and tools have to be changed in order to strengthen trust in facts and data and fight fake news. Partnerships, openness and trust are especially important here, as they are the key to fostering the kinds of global conversations that are necessary to ensure the appropriateness of interventions and ensure their sustainability.
Countries want to learn from countries
Some of the highest levels of engagement that we saw during our sessions in Hangzhou were from national statistical offices and other country representatives who wanted to learn from other country speakers about their own experiences.
During our session on NSO-parliamentary engagement, we were impressed at the number of comments and questions that audience members had for our panellists from Mongolia and Vanuatu. NSO officials were especially active, and you could tell from the insightful questions that many were looking for specific recommendations on how to strengthen relationships with policymakers that would be applicable to their organisation.
This was an important lesson for us. We’re often eager to engage with our partners and tell them about our latest work or findings, but it’s equally important that we provide space for our partners to engage with one another and help them gain the platform to share their own experiences.
Nothing about us without us
A paradigm shift is happening at many NSOs and within governments more broadly. They are starting to embrace the idea that citizens want and can be part of data production in the spirit of “nothing about us without us”.
The Collaborative on Citizen Contributions to Data, which was launched at the UN World Data Forum last week, highlights the willingness of all data actors to provide a space to share knowledge, resources, and experiences that value the contribution of citizens to data in all its forms.
The forum will also foster systematic collaborations and in-depth discussions among practitioners – NSOs, CSOs, academia, and regional and international organizations – and provide a platform for advocacy and mobilisation of relevant stakeholders around the topic.
The rich diversity of topics covered by the UNWDF this year highlighted the importance of initiatives like this to empower other actors to identify conceptual and methodological data gaps. After all, who best to understand the unique challenges that we face then we, ourselves, and by collaborating with a range of other actors we can develop effective, scalable solutions.
In Hangzhou, pork is a vegetable
As a first timer in China and a vegan, I was both excited to explore new culinary delights and somewhat hesitant, given that I’d been warned by Chinese friends and colleagues that their country could be somewhat challenging for plant-based visitors.
It’s true that China has a hugely varied diet both in the range of dishes and depending on what part of the country you’re in. But in Hangzhou, at least, the concept of vegetarianism (let alone veganism) is poorly understood. In this part of China, the diet is highly meat-oriented and even where vegetables are the main event, they are usually dressed or bathed in something meat-based.
I was amused to see that, despite a lengthy explanation from my Chinese colleague about vegetarianism to the waiter in one restaurant that we visited, my tofu dish still arrived dressed in large pieces of pork. It’s simply a concept that has not caught on in this part of China and as such most residents are not familiar with what it means. Yet our Chinese hosts were very accommodating and after the requisite explanation were usually happy to produce something that I could eat (and was always delicious). So-called “stinky tofu” was especially good!
We’re looking forward to the next forum, which will be held in Medellin, Colombia, next year!
See more photos from the week here.