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Interview with Toby Wicks, Data Strategist, UNICEF

In an exclusive interview, Toby Wicks, Data Strategist, UNICEF shares how the world would be post COVID and how data and technology will play a role in rebuilding economies.

What is your perception of how severely will COVID impact our economy and society?

It’s fair to say that my crystal ball is a little bit cloudy. COVID-19 has already brought about the biggest recession ever recorded and I think it will impact the global supply chains that have already been undermined by increased protectionism. So, it might be the bell that is sounding the death knell for neo-liberalism, if we push it. My rapid response to mitigating the socioeconomic situation would be elevating price control, deregulating capital markets, and lowering trade barriers.

How do you see that this is going to impact children of the world and the people in general?

Once again, the poorest will be the hardest hit, and a massive increase in poverty will be the longest lasting pervasive effect. Optimistically, it can signal a warning of the consequences of humanity’s destruction of our planet – an even bigger crisis of climate. Mitigation measures implemented to control the spread of the pandemic may lead to a reset button on air travel and the use of fossil fuels.

What role do you see of data and technology, especially geospatial or location information as a response tool and also to rebuild the economy?

Given the huge uncertainties surrounding how COVID-19 will play out in terms of health outcomes and socioeconomic outcomes, I think today policy making is about as hard as it can be. This is unprecedented and there is very little evidence to build on. Looking back and taking lessons from the past will not help. It is so tempting for us at UNICEF and other agencies to look at Ebola in West Africa and compare it with COVID-19 but it’s just such a different disease. I will also say that we are seeing a massive increase in the demand for data, particularly geospatial data, so we can direct what’s needed, especially scarce resources, to where they are needed the most.

The danger is that quick data have a tendency to ignore the most marginalized and the most vulnerable. So, we really have to be looking to make sure who isn’t counted and prioritize them in response. Here geospatial data and technology have a massive role to play. Disaggregation, in particular, is key here. You could say that we are not going to rest until we know that the last adolescent girl with a disability in north-east Nigeria has access to the services she needs.

That’s really important – disaggregation in all of these dimensions is where geospatial information has a huge contribution to make. I think that as a global community, we need to guard against ‘tools first’ approaches. We must first articulate the demand and then be smart about matching that demand with appropriate supply of data, talent, and technology, rather than drowning in the volume of the noise instead of focusing on the signal. For me that’s fundamental.

Can you give us some examples where UNICEF has used location information?

Indonesia, Haiti, Lebanon, Mexico and Yemen are just some of the examples I can think of. Last year, we put in place a preparedness initiative with a number of geospatial organizations. UNICEF now has long term agreements with a number of geospatial organizations, including CartONG, MapAction, Alcis, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, IMMAP, and EFFIGIS to strengthen capacity to access and deploy geospatial tools on demand. IMMAP deployed to Yemen within a couple of weeks. We are building an ecosystem of geospatial data talent and technology and I’m really excited about that.

How would building a network of data ecosystem support in rebuilding economies and the societal life post COVID? 

I really like the idea of geospatial as a team sport. It’s a phrase I use often. I don’t think any entity can do it alone. I’ve been really impressed with the direction of UNGGIM, and the UN geospatial network is really grappling with this idea in concrete terms by producing a blueprint, which will be published in the summer this year. In today’s resource-constrained environment, duplication of effort is criminal.

How will COVID-19 be impacting sustainable development goals? Moving forward what should be our priority?

Great question, again. I think we are going to go back at least to 2015 levels, losing five years of progress. We are accustomed to seeing really hard years of development work wiped out in conflict in places like Somalia, South Sudan and Central African Republic. Now we are sitting on the brink of seeing that at the global level, children and the poorest have the most to lose from this pandemic.

In terms of what to do, there’s so much we can say about the fact that it is unprecedented and that there aren’t too many lessons to build back on, but there is also something to say about no-regret policies that play out well in any scenario. Whether it is vaccination or safeguarding the most vulnerable, these are actionable benefits irrespective of whichever path COVID-19 takes.

Also, now is the time to build back green and the time for local action. Ideally, every citizen would connect with neighbors to identify vulnerable groups who might need help, forming solidarity groups in their communities while keeping informed from the most reliable sources of information and data. Community solidarity is key to understanding the pandemic and helping respond to make sure we come out of this with stronger societies. Corporations and the private sector have a massive role to play, in particular, reimagining how they can contribute as part of their contract with society. I’m quite impressed with the Hoffman Global Institute of Businesses Society at INSEAD. I’ve been following some of their work in this space. It epitomizes this idea of ecosystem that we are all in it together.

Do you see that this crisis has actually brought a shift in the minds of policy makers or the governments in the power of technology or data and especially geospatial information?

Yes, but it’s a double-edged sword. We see a massive increase in appetite, and at the same time we need to raise the bar on the ethical and appropriate use of geospatial data, particularly when we think of the most vulnerable and most marginalized.

I am excited about some of the work that the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) has been championing in this area, in particular, the Africa Regional Data Cube. Democratizing access to remotely sensed data offers huge opportunities because COVID-19 is just one of the many challenges that we face that doesn’t respect national boundaries. The earlier we can have timely access to reliable geospatial data to support some of these complex responses, the better.

These networks are still in their infancy, but they are already signaling a world in which timely access to valuable geospatial data can help us respond faster and better for children. We have a lovely opportunity to bring multiple sources of data together, something that we haven’t done enough in the past.

Can you give us some examples of what you exactly said about combining different sets of data for informed decision making?

We have a number of examples within UNICEF, many of which relate to humanitarian and fragile contexts. It can be quite a challenge. In Lebanon, my colleagues have invested huge amounts of time, energy and effort in collecting numerous forms of geospatial data and using them to target UNICEF programmes in the field and monitor coverage. UNICEF Lebanon is harnessing remotely sensed data, data from household surveys, and surveys within camps as well as administrative data, to understand the vulnerability of the refugees from Syria and internally displaced persons. It is a relatively simple model that Lebanon is using to prioritize UNICEF’s inventions, to find out where the most vulnerable communities are and where UNICEF should be targeting its interventions to ensure that people who need the aid most are receiving it.

What would be your priority areas moving forward to build societies and to ensure that proper economic resources reach all?

A focus on environment and sustainability is key and building back green really is fundamental. Again, I’d go with those no-regret policies. For me vaccination is a good example. This year I’m sure that we will see an increase in child mortality resulting from ill-informed decisions that parents are making through fear or misinformation rather than from the direct impacts of the virus. Having a smart and deliberate approach for making sure that parents have access to the best and appropriate information to make informed decisions about ensuring that their children have access to key services will be key. That will definitely be a priority for UNICEF going forward.

These no-regret areas are of the highest priority combined with safeguarding vulnerable groups and the various social distancing policies that are playing out in many contexts. Time will tell how effective the measures are. This is a challenging time for policy makers, but I’m optimistic that geospatial data talent and technologies are positioned to add value – there is an enormous appetite to harness that potential. Let us hold that thought and revisit in a few years to review.

Also Read: From COVID-19 to data revolution: Partnerships are inevitable