5 things we learned at UNCTAD eCommerce Week

value of data



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Last year the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) released its Digital Economy Report 2021 examining the implications of growing cross-border data flows, especially for developing countries. The report calls for a reframing and broadening of international policy debate on data. It was therefore with anticipation that UNCTAD eCommerce Week took place last week under the theme of data and digitalization for development. The Datasphere Initiative followed a number of sessions and took part in 6 panels. Here is a round-up of some of the cross-cutting themes about data we spotted arising from debates:

  1. There is a need for new policy concepts on data but implementation will be key

The Swiss coined concept of “Digital self-determination” was presented in a session on “Digital self-determination – an alternative approach to data governance issues”. This conversation emphasized the need to balance people’s desire to control their data while recognizing how the sharing of data can greatly benefit society. The Government of Switzerland intends to leverage its concept of Digital Self-determination and create incentives such as a code of conduct for trustworthy data spaces so that the potential of data is better realized. 

Japan’s concept of Data Free Flow with Trust was introduced in the context of a session on “Designing data governance solutions for the Global South”. The discussion brought forward the need to look into the implementation of this concept through evidence-based examples and multistakeholder exchange on policymaking.  The session on “Overcoming barriers to trust in cross-border data flows” demonstrated the complexity of trust as a policy goal and the need to unpack the risks and benefits of policy frameworks.

The Datasphere Initiative itself has been conceived under a new concept the “Datasphere” a notion we are defining as “the complex system encompassing all types of data and their dynamic interactions with human groups and norms.” We believe this concept will help us approach our relationship with data more holistically to responsibly unlock its value for the benefit of all. The concrete actions the Datasphere Initiative is taking to implement this vision were presented in the special session “Unlocking the value of data for all through the Datasphere Initiative.

  1. There are too many assumptions and analogies in policy debates on data

In a number of sessions speakers contested the analogy of “data as the new oil” reflecting how analogies aren’t appropriate because data is different. Data’s non-rival nature makes it difficult to measure its value as explored in the report We Need to Talk About Data, which was shared by the Datasphere Initiative during debates. Exchanges highlighted how data is a new asset not only economic but also social, implicating rights as well as inclusion. Calls were made in sessions such as “The AfCFTA and data governance frameworks in Africa to take a step back, understand policy goals and clarify intentions to ensure greater precision on how to regulate data and address global aims but also national development goals.

  1. Only creating national champions may not be the best approach for fostering data-driven industries 

Speakers at the session on “Promoting inclusive data policy through capacity building”, introduced a number of structured inequalities within the data economy and highlighted how lessons learned from capacity-building projects show that developing countries desire to have their own data-driven industries and platforms. However, not all countries are well equipped to meet these goals due to access and infrastructure challenges as well as market size. 

This theme was reflected in other sessions where the concept of data poverty was brought forward and noted how developing countries tend to be exporters rather than importers of data. The remedies put forward to address these inequalities were mixed and discussed in the session on “Whether ‘data localisation’ and ‘national champion’ approach would lead to an inclusive digital economy?”. The discussion emphasized a need for holistic and multi-faceted policy tools and approaches to building robust national data industries.

  1. While data is a driving force of the digital economy, patch-work regulatory frameworks persist 

The session “Cross-border data transfers for inclusive growth of the digital economy in Southeast Asia” heard examples from Cambodia on the growth of e-commerce during the covid-19 pandemic. The government has introduced on and offline consumer protection laws as well as set up a committee on the digital economy and businesses. However, when looking at the region as a whole, leveraging the value of data remains a major challenge due to very divergent regulatory regimes on data sharing practices. Speakers presented efforts by ASEAN to develop common and conducive regulatory frameworks. 

The session on “Understanding the development impact of digital services trade” shared analysis from a number of studies by GIZ, the World Bank, and partners on data frameworks. The discussion underscored that regulation is not enough without institutional frameworks, effective implementation of regulations, and investment in skills and underlying infrastructures to enable connectivity.

  1. Increasing numbers of data policy initiatives are taking shape with a hunger for connecting geographic, sectoral, and stakeholder silos

In the session “Democratizing digital intelligence: Maximizing the value of data for businesses in emerging markets” discussion underscored the need to address the problem of silos not only among actors at regional and international levels but also across sectors. The fragmented approach to gathering and leveraging data is leading to different principles, regulations, and languages. 

A range of policy initiatives, technical tools, civic initiatives, studies, consultations, and events were shared and promoted during the sessions including the Global Data Barometer, the State of Open Data Report, and the Data Values Project. Some of these organizations and initiatives are captured in the Datasphere Governance Atlas, the first flagship publication of the Datasphere Initiative which maps organizations from around the world working on data governance. 


A full list of sessions and recordings can also be found on the eCommerce Week website. Digital Watch an initiative of the Geneva Internet Platform has also prepared a range of reports from the discussions. 

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