UN to discuss how to harness data for development

12 April 2024

The 27th Commission on Science and Technology for Development convenes in Geneva from 15 to 19 April.

A women looks at data on a screen
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The Secretary-General of UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Rebeca Grynspan, will lead speakers at the 27th session of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) as they examine how to leverage data to accelerate sustainable development.

Ministers, policymakers, heads of international organizations and leading experts will convene in Geneva from 15 to 19 April.

They will explore what countries should do to strengthen global cooperation in science, technology and innovation to share sustainable, resilient and innovative solutions that will reinforce the 2030 Agenda and eradicate poverty in times of multiple crises.

The 27th CSTD will focus on the themes “Data for development” and “Global cooperation in STI for development”.

Secretary-General Grynspan will lead on 15 April a ministerial roundtable discussion on sustainable, resilient and innovative solutions for reinforcing the 2030 Agenda and eradicating poverty in times of multiple crises. The discussion will be streamed live on UN Web TV.

A conversation with great minds

On 15 April, the commission will also feature a conversation with three distinguished academic scholars in STI and active on socioeconomic development, who will provide thought-provoking insights on these topics. They are:

  • Yau Shing-Tung, a mathematician and poet who has won several world-renowned prizes including a Fields Medal (1982).
  • Rolf-Dieter Heuer, a physicist and former Director-General of CERN.
  • Nicola Spaldin, a professor in materials who has won several world-renowned prizes including Europhysics (2022).

The conversation will be streamed live on UN Web TV.

Apart from reviewing the progress made in 2023 in the implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) at the regional and international levels, the commission will discuss a preliminary paper on WSIS+20 by the secretariat and discuss informally the Global Digital Compact being negotiated and to be adopted at the UN Summit of the Future this September.

It will also hear presentations on the STI policy review and assessment of Agrivoltaics technology for Seychelles and the assessment of biogas technology for Zambia conducted under an UNCTAD project.

Leveraging data for development

Today data is growing in exponential terms, which is unprecedented in human history. As economies and societies become increasingly interwoven with digital technologies, data is increasingly seen as a strategic asset.

When managed wisely, data can become a powerful tool in addressing global challenges, ranging from poverty eradication to climate change mitigation. The reason are two folds.

First, data can enable evidence-informed policymaking, offering a holistic perspective on the complex interplay among various Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), hence facilitating the formulation of integrated interventions that simultaneously address multiple SDGs, ensuring no goal is compromised.

Second, data drives innovation, as manifested by the emergence of generative artificial intelligence, particularly large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT that were released in 2023 into the public sphere. LLMs represent a significant advancement in the development of AI, potentially marking a pivotal moment in human development as it has the potential to transform various aspects of society.

However, if mishandled, data can accentuate the disparities in developmental outcomes, magnifying the digital divide and potentially morphing it into a broader developmental chasm. For example, LLMs also raise concerns about misuse, impacts on employment, surveillance, and governance control.

Questions of data ownership and control

“Questions of data ownership and control are being hotly debated and data governance has received increased attention,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UN Trade and Development’s director of technology and logistics.

“Increasingly, the largest data sets and, thereby, capacity for data analysis, are held by global data corporations, including big platforms,” she added.

National governments, particularly in developing countries, have less access than commercial businesses to data that could be valuable, when disaggregated, for improving public services or targeting resources.

At present, there are no international norms or standards for data regulation, leading to fragmented data governance. Countries engaged in national data governance are trying to find a balance between risk avoidance and the promotion of innovation.

“While more countries are joining in setting national data regulations, the CSTD provides a neutral platform for countries to debate and shape international norms and policies that promote responsible data governance practices and address data privacy and security concerns,” Ms. Sirimanne added.

About the CSTD

The commission is a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council and the UN focal point for science, technology and innovation for development. It is also mandated to regularly review the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on Information Society, including the WSIS+20 review.

The CSTD acts as a forum for strategic planning, sharing lessons learned and best practices, providing foresight about critical trends in science, technology and innovation in key sectors of the economy, the environment and society, and drawing attention to emerging and disruptive technologies.

It also coordinates and facilitates technical cooperation among countries to share know-how on how to harness the power of STI for sustainable development, ranging from cropwatch, disaster risk reduction, to research capability enhancement. 

UNCTAD has hosted the secretariat of the commission since 1993.