The ‘data divide’ is a new form of injustice. Ending it could help us meet humanity’s greatest challenges

October 6, 2022, 10:10 AM UTC
Banks and corporations are spending hundreds of billions on data capabilities, while civil society around the world lacks access.
Wang Jilin - VCG/Getty Images

Just as the digital divide kept millions of people from accessing the advantages of the Internet a generation ago, there is a new “data divide” separating the haves from the have-nots.

The “haves” include people, companies, and organizations who have plenty of fresh data and have the technology and skills to use it to grow and thrive, while the “have-nots” are those who are operating with limited or no indication of what is effective and whose economic growth or social advancement is stunted as a result.

Businesses need to prioritize investment in data not just to drive revenue, but also to close the data divide–an essential step to solve social and environmental issues and boost the overall health of our society and economy.

Defining the divide

The data divide is about more than just access to data–it’s the growing disparity between the expanding use of data to create commercial value and the comparatively weak use of data to solve social and environmental challenges.

This is a clear and present problem. According to IDC, the spending on big data and analytics solutions exceeded $215 billion in 2021, with a third of that spending coming from just three sectors: banking, discrete manufacturing, and professional services. More than half of the spending came from just one country: the U.S.

Meanwhile, nonprofits lack access to data, technology, and skills. For instance, according to IBM, 67% of nonprofits lack expertise in the use of data analytics for their work.

In the public sector, some government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Census Bureau, have implemented strong data strategies to drive greater impact. But most government organizations worldwide are facing enormous challenges in leveraging their data to deliver services effectively and efficiently. Major problems that could benefit from data analysis–such as climate change, health equity, and quality education–may not get the attention and skills they need.

How to close the gap

All sectors must mobilize to invest in bridging this divide. Organizations that play a role in the data ecosystem, or that are leaders in using data already, can help create accessible, transformational solutions by sharing tools, talent, and financial resources to make data skills more widely available to nonprofits. This can also include donating software licenses, training, and support to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions around the globe to foster data literacy and action.

Leadership can also come from the public sector. For example, the UN Global Pulse – Data for Climate Action is an unprecedented open innovation challenge to harness data science and big data from the private sector to fight climate change. This challenge aims to leverage private big data to identify revolutionary new approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation.

Closing the gap is not only about solving global crises–but data can also help tackle local problems. For instance, Operation Clean Sweep in Buffalo, NY used 311 call data to bring citizens closer together. It started by connecting residents with critical health and human services. During neighborhood visits, corps members also conduct cleanups, seal vacant homes, remove graffiti, and fill potholes–and the city uses data to determine which neighborhoods are most in need of services.

The data divide may not feel like an urgent problem to many, but it underlies some of the world’s most pressing problems. With so many global crises already unfolding, we need problem solvers from all sectors to harness the power of data for positive social and environmental impact. If we do not act decisively and with urgency, the have-nots will fall further and further behind–and all of us will feel the effects.

If we act now, we can empower individuals and organizations around the world to use data to solve a wide range of problems, from skill gaps to climate change. We might even get a few potholes fixed, too.

Kriss Deiglmeier is Splunk‘s Chief Social Impact Officer.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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